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Theater Review: Broadway In Columbus Returns With Majestic, Fiery ‘Hadestown’

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Theater Review: Broadway In Columbus Returns With Majestic, Fiery ‘Hadestown’Kevyn Morrow and Morgan Siobhan Green in the Hadestown North American tour - Photo by T Charles Erickson
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I’ve been a fan of Anaïs Mitchell since I heard “Cosmic American” in 2003 and at once gravitated toward her folk-opera Hadestown when the record debuted a few years later. In the intervening years, I’ve seen her play riveting shows – a mesmerizing set at Rumba Café that included several of those songs; a beautiful trek through the Child Ballads with Jefferson Hamer opening for Punch Brothers at the Southern; a set at Rockwood Music Hall in Manhattan that stopped time.  

But I hadn’t seen the universally acclaimed, Tony-winning stage version of Hadestown, developed with and directed by Rachel Chavkin, until Tuesday night when it reopened the Broadway in Columbus season. And it so thoroughly lived up to, if not outpaced, my expectations, that I couldn’t imagine a better welcome back to that kind of big-audience theater. 

Hadestown recasts the familiar story of Orpheus (Nicholas Barasch) and Eurydice (Morgan Siobhan Green), in fabulist-tinged Depression-era New Orleans. Not far from the earth – and seeping into its blood – sits the underworld overseen by Hades (Kevyn Morrow) and Persephone (Kimberly Marable). The three Fates (Belén Moyano, Bex Odorisio, Shea Renne) flit back and forth, bringing the kind of trouble and complication nature is so very good at, while Hermes (Levi Kreis) serves as narrator, master of ceremonies, and sometimes confidant of Orpheus. 

Hades and Persephone loom over the proceedings, their actions and their personalities rippling through the air long after they leave the stage, and Morrow and Marable make the absolute most of these delightful gods behaving badly. Their flame-kissed duet on “How Long,” “You and your pity don’t fit in my bed. You just burn like a fire in the pit of my bed,” singed my eyebrows off in the back of the orchestra. Morrow plays Hades’ sly seduction, “Hey, Little Songbird” with the implacable confidence of someone who knows exactly what he has to offer, with delightful parrying from Green’s Eurydice. 

Marable’s solo piece, “Our Lady of the Underground,” one of the great declarations of self in the contemporary American songbook, nails how dramatic and how tenuous those feelings are, and also reveals itself as one of the great second-act-openers. They leaven the over-the-top tendencies baked into playing gods with a remarkable sweetness and a shared sense of teamwork and respect that makes it clear what kept the characters together all these years. 

Kimberly Marable and company in the Hadestown North American tour – Photo by T Charles Erickson

Kreis plays Hermes with a wink and a nod to Harry Connick, Jr., never quite trustworthy but impossible to dislike. His smooth-belting vocal delivery harkens back to the great big band crooners, shades of Connick there too, but even heavier on his inspirations like young Sinatra and Billy Eckstine. Watching him lean back and deliver a knockout blow on songs like the riotous opener “Road to Hell” and the ominous “A Gathering Storm” is like watching a prize fighter in top shape. The harmonies between the three Fates sharpen and deepen any song where they make their presence felt and their act one showcase “When the Chips are Down” is one brightest highlights in a show bursting with them. 

By the nature of the story, Orpheus and Eurydice are both ciphers and, often literally, pawns in the machinations of forces beyond their control. It’s to Green and Barasch’s credit that they stake out such a distinct place in the audience’s hearts. Their voices blend beautifully, with just enough grit and distinction stay consistently interesting on duets like “All I’ve Ever Known” and “Promises.” Barasch is breathtaking when he conjures an uncanny strength in his naïve character, and does the almost impossible, along with Chavkin’s direction, makes us think – as Hermes says – maybe this time the story will end differently. 

The primacy of the music, the vibrant pulse it brings to the show, is underscored by places of prominence given the sparse, muscular seven-piece band (except Anthony Johnson, whose exquisite percussion work happens offstage), and, in the first instance I can recall, Marable’s Persephone shouting out the players at the end of a song that’s not the encore.  

Hadestown North American tour – Photo by T Charles Erickson

Johnson, along with Cody Owen Stine conducting and playing piano, Jacob Yates, assistant conductor on the cello, Maria Im on violin, Michiko Egger on guitar, and Calvin Jones on bass, make sure the supple, greasy grooves live alongside ballads of unsurpassed sweetness and prickly arch modernism, all feeling like they’re the same world courtesy of arrangements by bassist (and producer of the original album) Todd Sickafoose and saxophonist Michael Chorney, that pair the instrumentation with Mitchell’s brilliant songs in ways that seem impossible to separate. There have been articles written about the use of trombone as the crucial instrumental voice. For this tour, that part, created on Broadway by Brian Drye, gets a brilliant read here by the great Audrey Ochoa, whose Frankenhorn has been in rotation for me since I first heard it in March.  

Dazzling vocal arrangements, making expert use of the five-person chorus (Lindsey Hailes, Chibueze Ihuoma, Will Mann, Sydney Parra, Jamari Johnson Williams) courtesy of Liam Robinson, also help reinforce and give dimension to the magic of this sound world. That grounding also comes from expert choreography by David Neumann, using the main cast – Marable and Morrow’s marvelous dance, stellar work by the Fates – and also that Chorus, melting between different groups of characters in a way that always feels organic and right. 

Chavkin’s expansion of Mitchell’s song cycle takes one of the quintessential stories of both the transformative power of art and its limitations, its ability to change – and not change – the world and the hearts of both audience and creator, and imbues what could be a heavy slog, with all the fun of a carnival ride or a night at a wild party. As Marable sings while leading the cast in the curtain call, “We raise our cups to them.” 

Hadestown runs through November 21 at the Ohio Theatre, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more information, visit columbus.broadway.com.

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