Hadestown review: I was bewitched by this achingly beautiful and boldy original musical

On paper, Hadestown really shouldn’t work. A broodingly melancholy musical based on Greek myth via modern industrial and socioeconomic concerns, with a fusion steampunk and New Orleans setting, a meandering plot and distinct lack of catchy show tunes? 

And yet… The packed crowd exuberantly cheered as each character came on, and their delirious delight sustained through to the thunderous curtain call. At first, I didn’t quite get it, and then somewhere along the way I was drawn in, initially intrigued, gradually bewitched and then profoundly moved. As if dunked in the river Styx, the real world outside slowly faded away.

It’s not quite like anything I’ve ever seen, but it weaves its own magic and cloaks us in the battles between love and loss, gods and heroes that linger long after, like the echoes of ancient tales we still wrap ourselves in, hidden deep down inside.

Writer and composer Anais Mitchell’s makes no concessions to modern attention spans or musical theatre conventions. This is a complete vision, a flawless harmony of music, staging and performances utterly true to itself. It requires you lean in and really listen, and the rewards are rich, indeed. 

Most of us have hazy memories of Orpheus and the Underworld, of the lyre-playing son of Apollo who took on Hades to win back his beloved Eurydice. The show takes us to the Depression-era Old West, a saloon steeped in Louisiana jazz, spirituals, and blues. It’s the last stop on a railroad to Hell, in a world of hunger and hardship where the seasons are out of balance.

Our host Hermes is a silver-suited mama, given full-throat and sassy swagger by Melanie La Barrie. Dónal Finn brings a captivating naivety and giddy charm to her young ward Orpheus, working on a song to challenge the gods and restore the earth. He falls for young drifter Eurydice, a spikily streetwise Grace Hodgett Young. He sings the extraordinarily challenging extended falsettos and plaintive melodies with a gorgeous lilting Irish folk charm, while she brings a refreshingly modern (if occasionally rather shrill) rhythm and belt.

The intoxicating Fates (Bella Brown, Madeline Charlemagne and Allie Daniel) slink around, weaving in divine three-part harmonies, appearing to help but slyly tangling everyone in their threads. Gloria Onitri is a deliciously electrifying, hip-flask slurping Persephone, desperately clinging to her days in the sun and dreading her return to the Underworld and her husband Hades (Zachary James, all rumbling bass notes and Mafioso stylings).

Estranged from his wife, Hades lures a starving Eurydice with promises of relief from cold and hunger – but she discovers Hadestown is a steampunk factory of eternal toil and loss of soul and memory. Orpheus must risk everything to rescue her – but will his song, and their love and faith be enough?

The score builds to its inevitable ending in a way that is increasingly operatic in the use of looping, repeating melodies and lyrics that create their own narrative and palpable atmosphere like the shuttling of a mythical loom. 

Rachel Hauck’s glorious saloon set has a wrought iron balcony for the gods and winding stairs for the Fates. It feels like an extension of the auditorium, as if we are all part of this story – and cracks open in a stunning set-piece. The strong supporting cast of five singer-dancers fill the space with dynamic movement and powerful harmonies, while the absolutely magnificent live band tiered around the action ladens the air with sublime, joyous sound.

The devastating climax is exquisitely countered by the reminder that we must keep singing our songs and telling our stories, even though we know the ending. They are in all of us and we are in them. The final a cappella lament and bittersweet toast “to Orpheus, and all of us” is a moment of quiet enchantment.

Yes, the book is rather thin, a couple of performances uneven, yes, the pacing is (deliberately) languorous and yes, you actually have to put some effort in. But this show’s story deserves to be told and sung to rapturous ovations every night. Now that’s an ending I can root for.



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