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‘Hadestown’ Theater Review: Anais Mitchell Drops Orpheus Into a Postapocalyptic World

The bad guys steal the show from Orpheus and Eurydice, and when they do, you feel like you’ve just stepped onto Bourbon Street

Anais Mitchell’s arresting folk-opera album “Hadestown” (2010) is now a stage musical, opening Monday at Off Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop. It’s possible not only to hear but see the Orpheus myth updated to a postapocalyptic Depression-era America.

Mitchell proves herself a master of jazz, blues, and ragtime, and Broadway’s current crop of songwriters should take note: Not every “Hadestown” song is orchestrated to be a “Defying Gravity” showstopper.

Kudos to Mitchell’s orchestrator, Michael Chorney. This duo presents an incredibly well-modulated score wherein sweet ballads aren’t automatically inflated into bombastic anthems. Instead, they’re allowed to simmer in the tenderness of Orpheus’s love for his wife, Eurydice, or the innate melancholia of two people being penniless. When Mitchell wants to deliver something big, and she often does, her music makes you feel like you’ve just stepped onto Bourbon Street.

What Mitchell’s music doesn’t have is much dramatic drive. Song after song gives us a glimpse into the characters’ emotional state. Rarely are we further along in the story when someone finishes singing.

The little plot there is moves through snippets of spoken dialogue, never on the lyrics, and after a while the trip into the crass money-driven underworld begins to feel endless. That’s an appropriate feeling for Orpheus and Eurydice; it’s not what theatergoers want to be feeling.

Mitchell the lyricist is no match for Mitchell the composer. Her wordplay is intelligent, but rarely is it inspired, and occasionally, there are false rhymes. The pop world probably doesn’t care. Some theater people do.

Songs have been added from the album, which clocks in at slightly over 60 minutes. The staged musical, with intermission, is slightly over two hours. It feels every minute of it.

As often happens when we visit the underworld, the bad guys are so much more riveting than the generic hero and heroine. Nabiyah Be and Damon Daunno aren’t the most full-blooded Eurydice and Orpheus ever seen on stage. The story necessitates that they spend a lot of time apart, so when they reunite only to be set asunder, it’s no big loss.

There’s much, much more emotional pull between Patrick Page’s Hades and his prisoner of a wife, Amber Gray’s Persephone. With his bottomless bass, Page embodies the ruler of the underworld to perfection. Gray is the delicate Creole flower he plucked years ago to take into his hot-house realm. They make Hadestown a place worth visiting.

Rachel Chavkin’s direction occasionally creates magnificent stage pictures — Hades at the entrance of his sweatshop prison, the three Fates (Lulu Fall, Jessie Shelton, Shaina Taub in fine voice) playing back-up — but the individual moments don’t build.

Chavkin also shows a peculiar fetish for mics. Not only do the actors have to wear the big across-the-jaw variety, which turns kissing into an obstacle course, but in various duets the singers circle each other around a standing double-headed mic. Maybe the cash-strapped Orpheus and Eurydice are auditioning for a radio marathon show?

Much more disturbing is the wicked brew of smoke, fog, and God-only-knows what chemicals that lingers in the theater air throughout the show. Leaving that polluted space, I felt like I’d just smoked a pack of Marlboros.

Robert Hofler, TheWrap's lead theater critic, has worked as an editor at Life, Us Weekly and Variety. His books include "The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson," "Party Animals," and "Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to A Clockwork Orange, How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All the Taboos." His latest book, "Money, Murder, and Dominick Dunne," is now in paperback.