Watching the stirring and visually stunning Act 1 finale of “Hadestown,” a folk-blues opera based on the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, it’s hard to imagine that singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell first presented this song in a concept album nearly a decade ago. After all, Patrick Page’s king of the Underworld uses his basement-dwelling basso voice to sing a positively Trumpian ode called “Why We Build the Wall” that concludes that barriers “keep us free” because “the Wall keeps out the enemy.”
That’s not the only way in which Mitchell’s new musical, which opened Wednesday at Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theatre after successful runs Off Broadway and in London, finds a contemporary spin on an ancient story. Although the normal cycle of seasons is out of whack at the top of the show, the cause isn’t climate change but Hades’ jealousy over the long absence of his spring-bringing wife Persephone (Amber Gray).
“It’s an old tale from way back when,” the sprightly, shimmery-suited André De Shields reminds us as our narrator, Hermes. “Gonna sing it anyway.” And there’s much that Mitchell & Co. unearth about the Greek myth that’s a delight to explore.
Start with Mitchell’s supple and often haunting score, a melodic mashup of folk-pop, jazz, blues, ragtime and even a tinge of gospel — played by an onstage seven-piece band, with occasional accompaniment by the cast.
The show is also blessed with some memorable performances, especially Page and Amber Gray, who vamps it up as Hades’ estranged Mrs. like a veteran cabaret star. The show also gets a jolt from Jewelle Blackman, Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer and Kay Trinidad as The Fates, a trio of harmonizing goddesses who hover about the action and intervene in the lives of our human heroes.
Those humans prove more problematic, though, particularly Reeve Carney (“Penny Dreadful,” “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark”) as the struggling musician Orpheus, whose songwriting gifts, we keep being told, are “touched” by destiny to set the far-too-wintry world back in balance. Carney sings well, but often seems to be straining at the upper limits of his vocal register. And it’s hard to see what the more practical-minded Eurydice (the strong voiced Eva Noblezada, “Miss Saigon”) initially sees in him since his musical precocity remains a shade or two short of effortless.
Part of this imbalance is the nature of the story: While the gods of the underworld are not outright villains, Page’s Hades and Gray’s Persephone are a hell of a lot more fun to watch — the devil always is — and the show tends to drag whenever it lingers on the more earthbound storyline.
Like its ill-fated hero, the production finds a way to look backward even as it strikes a path forward in its retelling of a familiar story.
Rachel Hauck’s eye-popping set design, Michael Krass’ costumes and Bradley King’s lighting all suggest a kind of Depression-era New Orleans setting that nonetheless feels of the moment — or, perhaps, timeless. And as she did with “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812,” director Rachel Chavkin creates some mesmerizing stage pictures. (Only the climax, with Orpheus’ final encounter with his beloved Eurydice, seems strangely underplayed.)
Chavkin, her production team and cast are working at the top of their form — and they go a long way to masking some of the show’s shortcomings. Mitchell is a better composer than a lyricist, alas, and sometimes leans too heavily on De Shields’ narration to advance the plot instead of her occasionally repetitive songs. And the fact remains that there’s just not much story here — not nearly enough for a two and a half hour show.
Still, there is something refreshing about a new musical that nods to the past even as it presents stage images and melodies that seem entirely fresh and new. Like Orpheus himself, “Hadestown” “could make you see how the world could be in spite of the way it is.”