Hadestown, a folk opera by the American singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell that retells the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, opened on Thursday at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton – and, according to all the headlines here, the show backed by New York commercial producers is "Broadway-bound."
You won't want to miss it if you're in town: Mitchell's music swings sublimely, played by a hot seven-piece onstage band, while Broadway veterans Patrick Page and Amber Gray shine as the king and queen of the underworld.
But Hadestown, which had an off-Broadway run as a small-scale, immersive show last year, still feels like it needs to make another pit stop or two before it nails down a theatre on the Great White Way. Both the material and the new, proscenium staging could use serious rethinks in parts.
In the ancient Greek myth, Orpheus is the lyre player who takes a perilous journey down to the underworld in search of his wife, Eurydice, when she dies shortly after their wedding day.
Charmed by Orpheus's singing, Hades, the god of the underworld, agrees to let him take Eurydice back to the land of the living under one condition: As he leads her out, he can't look back at his wife – or she will be lost forever.
It's a gut-wrenching story of grief, faith and an artist standing up to a tyrant and just falling short that's inspired great American playwrights from Tennessee Williams to Sarah Ruhl. Mitchell has been working on her musical version for a decade, releasing a concept album of songs called Hadestown back in 2010 with guest vocals by Ani DiFranco.
In the current incarnation, developed with the inventive Tony-nominated director Rachel Chavkin (Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812), Eurydice (T.V. Carpio) meets the singer-songwriter Orpheus (a chilly Reeve Carney) over a fire by the railway tracks to hell – and he invites her to make a home with her there. "This is the middle of nowhere," she says, confused.
"You should see it in the spring," Orpheus says – a line that had residents of this already snow-covered Canadian city laughing.
Indeed, come springtime, Persephone, the wife of Hades, arrives to bring back the sun and everyone dances and drinks, Livin' It Up on Top, as an early song goes.
But when the winter comes again quickly, the queen of the underworld ships off back to Hadestown – which in this story isn't hell exactly, but a subterranean world of mines and mills where a chorus of workers enslaved to Hades builds a giant wall.
Persephone gone, the surface world cools off again and food disappears. While Orpheus is absorbed writing a song, Eurydice gets buffeted by cold winds – and after encounters with a trio of tempting Fates (Jewelle Blackman, Kira Guloien and Evangelia Kambites) and Hades himself, decides to make way for the warmth and work of Hadestown.
What really pops in Mitchell's story and Chavkin's production is the relationship between Hades and Persephone – a complicated older couple trying to find the spark that originally animated their love.
Hades, played by the impossibly deep baritone Page, has a chilling song that sounds like a lost Leonard Cohen track, where he forces his workers to explain Why We Build the Wall – the lyrics of which have clear contemporary resonance. Persephone, meanwhile, enchants in a series of upbeat tunes with sad centres, Gray crooning her best Billie Holiday while displaying a flapping physicality straight out of The Triplets of Belleville.
By contrast, the relationship between Orpheus and Eurydice is underdeveloped – indeed, it never feels like the two naive lovers have much of one in the first place. It's unclear why Eurydice shouldn't go to Hadestown – or why Orpheus follows when she seems to have willingly left him.
It doesn't help that Carpio and Carney have little chemistry – though to be fair, the two aren't given much chance to really build any. Most of Chavkin's production takes place on a pair of raised, nested turntables – essentially a spinning circle inside a spinning ring. The actors are whirled around as much as they move their bodies themselves – something Torontonians and Montrealers will have seen recently in Peter Hinton's production of Constellations.
This is neat at first, but it becomes dizzying – and disconnects the characters from each other. In a show full of songs with lyrics that are often poetic social commentary in Mitchell's voice, and only a few clearly advancing character or story, the staging robs the performers of the crucial ability to tell us what's going on through body language.
And there's no dialogue to fill in the blanks – just rhymed recitative, mostly from a narrator named Hermes (Kingsley Leggs) who isn't always that helpful. "Don't ask where, brother, don't ask when," he sings in the opening number.
Best not to ask all that much about what Mitchell's Hadestown – a stylized demonic factory town, rather than the afterlife – means as a metaphor, either. We're simply supposed to take it as a symbol for all that is wrong, even though there's not a compelling alternative vision offered by either Orpheus or the above-ground world – especially in scenic designer Rachel Hauck's austere depiction of it, a leafless tree in front of a black backdrop. When the orange glow of the lamps of Hades descend onto the stage, it is welcome.
From Jesus Christ Superstar to Tommy to American Idiot, of course, concept albums have made it to the stage and been greeted by criticisms of missing narrative pieces – only to win over audiences anyway. Mitchell's songs, arranged and orchestrated beautifully by Michael Chorney, are certainly exceptional – gospel and swing and folk played by a band with a trombonist named Audrey Ochoa front and centre that blew me away. But there's trouble underground when your one-woman brass section displays and inspires more passion that your Orpheus and Eurydice.