Monday, June 6, 2016

His Kiss, the Riot: Hadestown @ New York Theatre Workshop

It was about a decade ago we were sitting around on a patch of grass at the (much-missed) Champlain Valley Festival, when a friend of a friend said "I'm writing an opera" and played the first few songs of the set that would become Hadestown, her musical adaptation of the Orpheus myth. Then a year or so after that we were roadtripping back up to Vergennes (the town hall this time) to see Anais Mitchell and a bunch of Vermont musicians perform the finished product, as it was then: a semi-staged song cycle, with mic stands proudly in the way. It worked really well, and I told the Mutual Friend it reminded me a lot of Mahagonny. Then a few years later came the album, and several rounds of the show in various locations with various people -- Orpheus might be Justin Vernon or Jefferson Hamer or somebody else entirely, Persephone might be Ani DiFranco or Thao Nguyen or somebody else entirely. And that Hadestown had its day, and then Mitchell moved on to other projects.

Then came the news that Hadestown was being developed into a fully-staged theater piece with the director Rachel Chavkin. And then it was cast, and then it opened, and here we were, back with the Mutual Friend, way down, way downtown on 4th St. in the East Village.

Some things have been added (dialogue, some new songs), and some things taken away (Cerberus), but what they've created is a tight piece of musical theater in two acts that grabs the attention and hangs onto it. The black box space of the NYTW now contains an amphitheater -- risers in the semi-round with the largest variety of vintage straight-back chairs this side of a New York State Museum warehouse. There's a tiny bar tucked underneath the risers, too, so when you walk in you can buy water, wine, and beer -- which, contrary to usual practice, you can take into the theater with you, and you should, because there will be a toast to Persephone and a toast to Orpheus and you should have something on you to toast with. 

The cast is excellent across the board. As Orpheus, our guitar slinging hero, Damon Daunno has a challenging vocal line to wrangle, ranging from high tenor to falsetto (on 2010's studio album this part is sung by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver), but he manages it well. Nabiyah Be conveys all the doubt Mitchell gives Eurydice, supplemented by the dialogue she's been given. "I play the lyre," says Orpheus, introducing himself. "A liar and a player, too," says Eurydice, with more than a touch of jaundice. Persephone (Amber Gray), jazz diva in a spring-green floral-print dress with flowers in her hair, is well-matched with Hades (Patrick Page), the real player, in black shirt (open-necked), black jacket, black pin-striped pants and black boots, slick as an oil spill out of Tartarus; Hermes (Chris Sullivan) is a whiskey-voiced, world-weary MC, guide and messenger; The Fates (Lulu Fall, Jessie Shelton, Shaina Taub) are tough and unpredictable, with harmonies like a deck chair in the sun one minute and the edge of a cliff in a stiff wind the next. (Also they play violin, accordion, and tambourine, which Wagner's Norns could never boast.) Lastly the fantastically tight band, which swings Mitchell's changes of musical register -- from wistful passages (Flowers) to audience participation barn-burners (Our Lady of the Underground) -- and Michael Chorney's multifaceted orchestration with tremendous skill and verve.

It's less of an opera now, and more of a musical, but the story is intact and so are the politics. There was half-time crowd comment of how prescient the political aspects are -- the denizens of Hadestown are employed by the Big Boss in building a wall to keep out the have-nots. But this is not so much prescient as a reminder that, as the Orpheus story is not a new story, the Wall is not a new phenomenon, either in election cycle rhetoric or in execution.

The run has been extended through July 3 now July 31st.

A little something from the good old days...

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