Sunday, July 10, 2016


Have you ever not completely connected with a show when you first sat through it, only to fall head over heels in love with it in retrospect? It's happened to me on only a few occasions that I can recall. I was amused and entertained by Passing Strange, for example, but not so passionately that I was even remotely prepared to wake up the following morning with the almost physical urge to listen to the cast recording over and over again, thereby cementing my embrace of a show I'd been unsure about in the first place.

I'm back there with Hadestown, a gorgeous, strange theatrical rendering of the 2010 concept album of the same name by Anais Mitchell. The production, running through the end of the month at New York Theatre Workshop, boasts a terrific cast, whose voices are haunting and appropriately weird. The visual aspects of the production are gorgeously rendered, thanks in part to Rachel Chavkin, an innovative director whose current hot status is well-deserved. The backing band is jumping, the music is catchy, and the set and lighting deceptively simple. The numbers alternate between deeply affecting ("Flowers"), amusingly jaunty ("Our Lady of the Underground"), and bone-chillingly prescient ("Why We Built the Wall", which is one of the catchiest songs on the album, and also the ickiest given the current political climate). Still, while I found myself loving the show's many parts, the finished product initially left me cold, since it doesn't try too hard to fill in all the narrative gaps left by the original album.

Joan Marcus

Shows based on concept albums are tricky beasts that are especially tough to pull off. Most concept albums have notoriously scant throughlines. Some of the most iconic--the Beatles' Sgt Pepper, the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life, Marvin Gaye's What's Going On--feature songs linked by mood, theme, or characters that are, due to the dictates of the medium, very vaguely drawn at best. Even the most theatre-minded, narrative concept albums--Jesus Christ Superstar and the Who's Tommy, for example--are notoriously tough to stage to everyone's satisfaction: once a fan of the album has filled in all the gaps, someone else's completely different take just doesn't fly. The original Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar disappointed a lot of people who flocked to see "their" album brought to life, only to encounter Tom O'Horgan's day-glo colored, insect-inspired phantasmagoria. The same thing happened many years later with The Who's Tommy, which struck many diehard fans of the album as too slick and sanitized to truly rock.

In this respect, I suppose it's a good thing that I came at Hadestown backward, even though I felt a little lost during the show itself. What I got from the production, and subsequently from the concept album, is my own interpretation of two interconnected Greek myths--the Orpheus/Eurydice story and the Hades/Persephone one--that were and now remain completely unchallenged.

As I read it, the stage version takes place in the US, in some blighted and desperate place, maybe in the past: the Dust Bowl-era plains, Depression-era St. Louis, post-Hurricane New Orleans. Or, hell, maybe in some declining, once proud middle-class town right now. Wherever it is, there's no work and few resources on earth, though the sun continues to shine and the land continues to green itself each spring. The underworld, controlled by a domineering and egomaniacal Hades in a sharp, black suit (Patrick Page at his chilly best), sucks pretty hard, too, but at the very least, there's work to fill the empty days--and also, food and warmth.

This version gives Euridice more of a voice than other versions I've come across: she loves Orpheus a lot, but she's pretty clear on the fact that she wants more than some falsetto-warbling hipster to promise her rivers, trees and birdfeathers. Sure, that's all pretty and poetic, but it's hardly a secure plan for the future. When the land gets cold, food gets scarce, and Orpheus's cheery assurances get old, Euridice decides--despite her love for him--to leave and descend to the netherworld. Hades--an icy, seductive, black-suited slickster--doesn't help dissuade her; instead, he seals the deal by reminding her that Orpheus really does have little but love to offer. He might as well just have waved a steak in her face.

Of course, the underworld turns out to blow chunks. Hades is a heartless taskmaster, the work is Sisyphean, backbreaking, and pointless, and the surroundings are ugly and threatening. No wonder Hades' beautiful, partygirl of a wife, Persephone (Amber Gray, awesome as always), is happier roaming the earth in springtime than hanging in the underworld during the dark months. It gives nothing away to tell you that the story resolves itself as it always does: Hades grudgingly lets Orpheus try to retrieve Euridice, but his lack of faith in her does the couple in.

Now that I've been streaming--repeatedly--the concept album, I'm finding myself answering questions I had about the production, and in the process fusing aspects of the show to the songs on the album. Maybe the strength of the production lies in the very fact that its creative team did not attempt to fill in every narrative detail for its audience--which, I assume, has included plenty of people who were lured by their love of the album in the first place.

Are you one of them? Did you know the album before you came to see the show? And if so, were you satisfied with the production? Feel free to weigh in--but don't be afraid you'll sway my opinion in doing so. Relationships with concept albums--and, I suppose, with concept stage musicals as sharp and beautifully rendered as this one is--run as deep as the love Orpheus has for Eudidice. So opine away--and meanwhile, I'll be biding my time with the concept album until the cast recording comes out. Perhaps I'll even go back to see the show before it closes. If you have yet to see it, you should, too--it's not crystal clear, but it sure is pretty to look at, listen to, and experience nonetheless.

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