André de Shields knows the value of silence. At the very beginning of Hadestown, the Anaïs Mitchell folk opera currently playing a pre-Broadway tryout at the National Theatre, he steps forward and teases the audience by waiting to speak until the expectant hush in the Olivier’s auditorium borders on deafening. It’s a masterful beginning to a masterful performance, and Mr. de Shields is one of the great highlights in a show that is never less than entertaining.
Hadestown, which began life as a 2010 concept album by Ms. Mitchell and arrives in London following productions at New York Theatre Workshop in 2016 and the Citadel in Edmonton, Alberta in 2017, is essentially a blue-collar rough-theatre retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. The action begins and ends in a down-home bar somewhere in the American South – probably New Orleans – in what might be the present, or might be a post-apocalyptic hellscape, and Hell, when we (eventually) get there, has what might best be described as a post-industrial expressionist aesthetic (think along the lines of Metropolis or The Adding Machine). The story is told almost entirely in song – thank God, because the few bits of linking narration, some of which involve actors speaking in (barely-)rhyming couplets, are cringe-inducingly dire. The songs, however, are terrific. Ms. Mitchell’s music is an appealing gumbo of folk, jazz, blues and pop, there’s a superb band, and there are thrilling performances from Mr. de Shields, from Patrick Page as an über-capitalist/industrialist Hades, from Amber Gray as a Persephone who really knows how to have a good time in the months she’s allowed out of Hadestown, and from Carly Mercedes Dyer, Rosie Fletcher, and Gloria Onitiri as the three slinkily fabulous Fates whose commentary punctuates the action.
The storytelling, on the other hand, is less successful, although it’s clearer in the second act than the first. Hadestown presents us with a simplified version of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, but it still takes far too much of the first half for the plot to swing into gear, and you won’t find a great deal of nuance in the portrayal of Orpheus or Eurydice. That’s partly due to the writing, which unfortunately gives the two central characters the show’s most blandly generic songs, and partly down to the two blandly generic performers cast in those roles. As Orpheus, we have Reeve Carney; he’s good-looking, he has a nice voice, he plays the guitar nicely, and he can’t act at all. Eva Noblezada’s Eurydice is a little more compelling: she’s also good-looking, she has an absolutely stunning voice, and she can act a bit more than Mr. Carney, by which I mean she’s capable of mustering more than one-and-a-half facial expressions. We’re supposed to believe that theirs is one of the great tragic love stories, so it would be nice if they had some chemistry together. Or any chemistry together. Or any stage presence. They sound fantastic, but this is theatre, not a recording studio.
And that, I’m afraid, sums up the problem with Hadestown: despite inventive direction by Rachel Chavkin (this made me really look forward to seeing her production of The American Clock later this year), a terrific barroom/bandstand set by Rachel Hauck, impeccable lighting by Bradley King, and muscular choreography from David Neumann, Hadestown is ultimately a thrilling musical experience – thrilling enough, certainly, to be worth an evening of your time – rather than a moving piece of theatre. The problem is exemplified by the way the show deploys the ensemble of “workers” – they function as a chorus, sing as a chorus, and are given basically no opportunities to show any individuality. That’s a definite choice, and potentially a strong choice, but it’s a choice that needs to be justified, and the show never does, which means that too often they just seem like backing singers/dancers (also – directors, you DO NOT cast the amazing Seyi Omooba in a show without giving her at least one opportunity to let rip with that incredible voice, even if it’s just for four bars). Everything looks great, sounds great, moves beautifully, but Ms. Mitchell’s lyrics, while often appealingly colloquial, don’t carry the weight of the narrative, and neither do the two performers in the central roles. My God, though, the thrilling moments are thrilling, whether it’s André de Shields showing us a masterclass in how to hold the audience in the palm of your hand in the opening number Road to Hell, or Patrick Page’s Hades leading the chorus in the borderline-fascistic Cheetolini-eque Why We Build The Wall at the close of the first act, or Amber Gray swinging her way through Our Lady of the Underground. There are more than enough thrilling moments for Hadestown to be absolutely worth the cost of a ticket (or the cost of a recording – the cast album, which was made after the NYTW production, is pretty wonderful, and features Patrick Page and Amber Gray), but they’re all – all – about the music rather than the story. Hadestown is often wonderful, but it’s a wonderful concert (albeit a concert presented with a great deal of theatrical flair) as opposed to a wonderful musical.
Then there’s the question of what it’s doing at the National in the first place (answer: filling a gap – a couple of years ago the National announced they were developing a musical version of The Witches to play during the 2018 Christmas season, but nothing has been heard of it beyond the initial announcement; presumably it’s either not ready or has fallen through, leaving the National with a Christmas slot to fill in their largest auditorium, which just happens to a have a similar configuration to the Citadel in Edmonton, where Hadestown played last year) . If the National had commissioned Anaïs Mitchell and Rachel Chavkin to create a new piece for them, I’d have no argument with it – they’re interesting artists and there’s certainly room for them in the National’s programming. If the show had been developed by the National in collaboration with NYTW and/or the Citadel (or Canadian Stage, or the American Repertory Theater, or A.C.T., or wherever), again, there’d be no problem; I’d love to see the National engage in more cross-border collaborations, and I have a ticket for Downstate, developed with Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, later this year. This, though, is not that kind of collaborative enterprise. This is a show developed by a nonprofit theatre in New York and subsequently produced in a nonprofit theatre in Canada that has been picked up by commercial producers for presentation on Broadway.
It’s great for the show and for Ms. Mitchell that a team of producers think it deserves a commercial run, and there’s nothing about the show in itself that should make it fall outside the National’s remit – except that this appears to be a case of a commercial management using the National’s resources, which are supported by significant public funding paid for out of the tax base, to get their pre-Broadway tryout run at a bargain rate. This isn’t a National Theatre production that’s going to Broadway, it’s a Broadway musical playing a preview run at the National, presumably because to do so is cheaper than a commercial tryout in Boston or Chicago or Seattle or wherever. There isn’t even any mention of the National on the front page of the Broadway production’s website:
The casting, also, is problematic. All five principals – including the two who don’t make a full personality between them – are imported from the US under the Equity exchange scheme. No problem with that, it was a genuine pleasure to see Mr. de Shields, Mr. Page, and Ms. Gray (and as for Mr. Carney and Ms. Noblezada… it was a genuine pleasure to see Mr. de Shields, Mr. Page, and Ms. Gray), and the traffic runs in both directions. Or the traffic SHOULD run in both directions. We have five American leads who are going to Broadway with the show, and an ensemble of UK-based performers who it’s safe to assume are not (if the same cast was going to be playing London and Broadway, it would have been announced by now). In this show, as I said, the ensemble performers are kept firmly behind the five leads, which is a defendable choice – but in the National Theatre, it leaves a slightly sour taste to see a show in which all the leads are imported from overseas and all the homegrown performers are employed in ensemble roles or as understudies. To say the least, this does not suggest the Broadway production’s producers view working at the National as a collaboration between equals.
It’s not – as I said – that there is any problem with the National bringing in performers from overseas – Bryan Cranston’s performance in Network was quite extraordinary, and I’m looking forward very much to seeing Denis O’Hare in Tartuffe in April. Both of those productions, though, place(d) UK-based performers alongside the star in leading roles, rather than relegating homegrown talent to the chorus, whereas the nature of the casting of Hadestown carries with it a fart-like whiff of exploitation of the local talent pool by Broadway producers looking to save a few bucks (Equity pay rates for actors are way lower in London than on Broadway or the US touring circuit). It is to be hoped that the financial arrangements underpinning this production benefit the National as much as the American co-producers; the programme note from those co-producers thanking the National for supporting the creative team’s vision, as opposed to for collaborating in the show’s development, raises some questions. And that’s being kind.
As for the show itself, it’s an exciting, distinctive event, and – as I said – a thrilling musical experience. It’s worth experiencing this score live, there’s a superb band, the singing is wonderful, and André de Shields, Patrick Page, and Amber Gray are more than worth the trip. If you’re looking for the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, on the other hand, go ahead and book a ticket – you’ll get a kick out of seeing the way Ms. Mitchell’s songs riff on top of it – but maybe pick up book ten of Ovid’s Metamorphoses on the way to the theatre and read it on the train home.