By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Hell … yes!
If you get yourself a ticket to the Underworld — and really you must! and soon! — you’ll be going to hell and back wrapped in a ravishing dream of love and loss, and the terrible accommodations we make to survive in a world that’s “hard and getting harder all the time.”
Seldom have poetry and music taken to the stage together with such visceral camaraderie and theatrical invention as they do in Hadestown. And at the Citadel, where Rachel Chavkin’s stunning new production of the Anaïs Mitchell folk opera musical is getting its Canadian premiere (en route to a Broadway opening in 2018), a packed opening night crowd actually held its collective breath when a singer-songwriter named Orpheus, a star of Greek mythology, makes a fateful choice and loses, big time.
Hadestown unspools its own original thread from the story of Orpheus who ventures into the kingdom of the dead to retrieve his lost love Eurydice, and manages to make a special deal with Hades. He can lead her out of the Underworld provided he doesn’t look back.
A musical about music, about artistic creation: that’s what’s taken Mitchell’s gorgeous songs, and lyrics with unexpected imagery, agile wit, reimagined turns of phrase and rhymes, into the theatre — first as a hit 2016 Off-Broadway production, and now, in Chavkin’s new and bigger production, the Citadel’s Shoctor stage.
There’s a sophisticated kind of simplicity involved in its occupancy there, thanks to Chavkin and scenic designer Rachel Hauck. The look is Depression austere. On a stage that’s bare save a gorgeous bare tree which chronicles the passing seasons in light alone (by the master lighting designer Bradley King), two concentric revolving turntables — and an eight-member band who prove their worth immediately with a jazzy trombone solo (Edmonton’s Audrey Ochoa) — the cast of the story assembles.
The characters are introduced, with annotations, by the wonderful Kingsley Leggs as Hermes: our worldly-wise narrator has seen it all before, “an old tale from way back when,” but can’t help being moved by the cycles of human affairs. And he looks us in the eye to share.
We meet the three singing Fates, a draped in industrial-burnished Depression punk (designer: Michael Krass). “There’s no telling what you’re gonna do/ when the chips are down,” sing the Fates, who are experts on the price of everything — every choice, every deal, every test. And, as these resident cynics of Hadestown sense, the chips are seldom anywhere else but down in Mitchell’s vision.
In a world of wintry privations, Hadestown is a heated underground kingdom of prosperity and factory jobs, ruled by the ruthless oligarch Hades (black-clad Patrick Page in sunglasses)and surrounded by a wall. Mindless, soul-scorching labour in exchange for security, that’s the ticket.
It’s a proposition that the penniless idealist Orpheus (Reeve Carney), who gravitates “to the world we dream about” not “the world we live in now,” easily resists. Eurydice (T.V. Carpio), starving and cold, is more pragmatic, and more amenable to Hades’ offer of a train ticket.
Ah yes, “the railroad line to Hell.” Hades’ wife Persephone (Amber Gray, who is sensational), steps off that train with “a suitcase full of summertime” as Hermes puts it, for the six months she’s above ground, a flower party girl. And she steps off again as she returns to her husband’s hothouse stronghold below. Mitchell’s lush but rhythmic and jagged music lives and breathes with the narrative.
The New Orleans jazz idiom of Livin’ It Up On top is embraced with contagious sensual energy by Gray and co as Persephone emerges bringing wine and flowers. She slides into gospel mode as she returns to the kingdom of death: “I hear the high and lonesome sound…. of my husband coming for to bring me home.”
The strange long-distance relationship between Hades and Persephone has a kind of tension and heft that underpin the whole musical. The performances from Gray and Page are (along with Leggs) are the most powerful in the production. Gray is magnetic as the beautiful woman whose travel itinerary organizes the earth’s calendar; you can’t take your eyes off her every second she’s onstage. And with his startling bass timbre that rattles your ribcage, Page is thrillingly authoritative as the sinister and persuasive ruler of a world that works.
While Carpio has a luminous grace as Eurydice, her Orpheus seems a little under-hefted in the performance by Carney on tenor guitar. The performance is not without some fragile charm, but he sings like you could shatter him with a single trombone blast.
True, Orpheus is fashioned as a singer-songwriter in a folky not musical theatre mode. But for a star musician artist who’s called upon, by the plot, to captivate and subdue the forces of darkness, I don’t know that you can quite believe it happens. His crucial song, at least as delivered, just doesn’t have the 11 o’clock number traction.
And when the Act I curtain number is a showstopper like Why We Build The Wall, Hades’ call-and-response number which escalates in an ominous way, with a litany of responses from the docile workforce, well…. That number is downright heartstopping in this age of Trump. And it takes Act II a while to recover, in truth.
The workers’ chorus, which includes Canadian actors Vance Avery, Hal Wesley Rogers, Tara Jackson and Andrew Broderick, is a knock-out. David Neumann’s choreography, eloquent throughout, sets them in motion, muscles rippling in the striking diagonals of repetitive stress motion, like socialist/ realist posters of the ‘30s.
Chavkin’s stagecraft seems to proceed organically from the kind of imagery that is everywhere in Mitchell’s song cycle. And though ingenious, it’s not high-tech. A walking trip down down down to Hades’ kingdom, for example, is conjured in a parade of moving industrial lights.
Imaginative lighting by Tony Award-winner King is a dramatic contributor to the narrative. The down-under world of Hades, in his hands, seems to give off unnatural heat.
And there’s Mitchell’s extraordinary art rock/ folk/ trad jazz all-embracing music everywhere, brilliantly arranged by Michael Chorney, from an expert band *musical director Liam Robinson) and a cast of charismatic actor-singers. And the sound (designer: Nevin Sternberg) is unerring.
So, going to hell is something you shouldn’t miss the chance to do, in this rare collaboration between New York producers and a theatre company across the continent whose resources have been amplified for the occasion.
“Come home with me,” says Orpheus to Eurydice at the outset, even before their first date. “This is the middle of nowhere,” she says, amused and resistant. Orpheus’s rejoinder is an unintentional little Alberta joke. “You should see it in the spring.” That’s what we tell all our visitors. But spring is too late. Hold that thought.
Created by: Anaïs Mitchell, in collaboration with Rachel Chavkin
Directed by: Rachel Chavkin
Starring: Reeve Carney, T.V. Carpio, Amber Gray, Patrick Page, Kingsley Leggs
Running: through Dec. 3
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com