Hell, yes! surprising salvation in 'Hadestown' at the Orpheum

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday June 21, 2022
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(from top-left clockwise) Kevyn Morrow, Kimberly Marable, Nicholas Barsch, Levi Kreis and Morgan Siobhan-Green in the 'Hadestown' North American Tour.
(from top-left clockwise) Kevyn Morrow, Kimberly Marable, Nicholas Barsch, Levi Kreis and Morgan Siobhan-Green in the 'Hadestown' North American Tour.

An esteemed thinker once defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result.

But "Hadestown," the hot, jazzy interpretation of Greek mythology now playing at the Orpheum Theatre, smartly points out that the cycle of the seasons, the flicker and rekindling of long-term romances and the sharing of age-old stories can offer bliss in repetition.

When Orpheus (Nicholas Barasch) gives in to doubt and loses his beloved Eurydice (Morgan Siobahn Green) for the umpty-umpth time as each performance of "Hadestown" winds down, the show's company roars at the audience in song, urging us to wring hope from tragedy.

Led by emcee Hermes (Levi Kreis), they sing "To know how it ends/And still begin to sing it again/As if it might turn out this time.../He could make you see how the world could be/In spite of the way it is."

Heaped atop Anais Mitchell's poetic, propulsive songs; director Rachel Chavkin's smart decision to treat the material like a nightclub revue rather than a linear book musical; and a phenomenal ensemble that energetically outperforms many a Broadway cast; this unexpected optimism, sneakily beaming from within the show's seductive darkness, makes "Hadestown" a singular thrill.

To borrow from both Einstein and Apple: This show is insanely great.

Mitchell's book for the show loosely interweaves the Orpheus and Eurydice myth with that of Hades and Persephone. All Greek to you? A quick five minutes on the internet will give you all the plot you need to know. "Hadestown" tells its tales in broad strokes, rightly confident that stories that have resonated for millenia will strike subconscious chords in audience members (That's a major benefit of myth-appropriation).

Her music, on the other hand, is richly detailed and fully engrossing: A brassy amalgam of jazz, folk, swing and blues with a dash of narrative rap thrown in for good measure ("Hamilton," meet Edith Hamilton).

Delivered by a hip-shaking onstage band and singing actors with widely varied timbres, the music provides texture and shading that enliven the show's simple storylines, compelling audiences to consider these antique tales afresh, and to savor their meanings rather than duly take them in to prepare for a grade school book report.

That said, the entire production is structured as eye-popping pedagogy, with Kreis' narrator-Hermes dropping knowledge in droll, Cab Calloway style, as he sharkily glides across a set that's Greek forum by way of seamy New Orleans supper club.

The stage and lighting design (by Rachel Hauck and Bradley King), along with David Neumann's choreography (which conveys setting as much as character) allows this single bandstand scenario to convincingly shift between representing earth and underworld with a bare minimum of physical scenery changes.

Kreis (a Tony-winner as Jerry Lee Lewis in "Million Dollar Quartet") is bolstered by other standouts among a uniformly excellent cast. As Orpheus, the milk-complected, flame-haired Barasch sings in a glorious, celestial tenor: Every time he vocalizes, it's as if your soul's being taken hostage by a eunuch Ed Sheeran.

Kimberly Marable's Persephone is a day-drinking, mood-swinging hoot as she snowbirds between earth in spring and summer and a troubled marriage to Hades (Kevyn Morrow) down below in the darker months. And a ghoulish girl-group of three almost-campy Fates (Belén Moyano, Bex Odorisio and Shea Renne) adds leavening sass whenever the score threatens bottomless brooding.

"Hadestown" has already succeeded as a mytho-pop pageant before it soars to a higher pantheon with the stirring twist in its final minutes, when it directly challenges the audience to step back from its particular tale of damnation and consider the larger value of storytelling art, be it Greek myth or Broadway musical.

At a time when every day's headlines feature collapse, corruption, war and plague, "Hadestown" works like an angel in devil drag. Its sultry come-on promises to lick you with flame, then anoints you with balm of Gilead.

'Hadestown,' through July 3 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St. $56-$226. (888) 746-1799. www.broadwaysf.com

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