Is this the next globe-trotting, all-conquering, chart-topping US musical sensation? Anais Mitchell’s Hadestown has taken a long time to reach the big time, starting as a touring concert that became a folk opera concept album in 2010, then evolving into an Off-Broadway show in 2016, now reworked again in a transatlantic tryout at the National before it hops back to Broadway next year.
The show is basically a grand reworking of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, re-imagining the young lovers as smitten songwriters, Hades as a jaded old capitalist, and his underworld realm as a kind of industrial, blue-collar Speakeasy-slash-mine.
It’s directed by Rachel Chavkin, designed by Rachel Hauck, and stars Reeve Carney as Orpheus, Eva Noblezada as Eurydice, Patrick Page as Hades, Amber Gray as Persephone, and Andre De Shields as Hermes, our host for this evening. It runs in the Olivier until late January.
But will Mitchell’s much-anticipated musical become a success of mythic proportions? Will Hadestown have London loving it before its big Broadway run? Will British critics fall for this full-blooded folk opera?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Orpheus and Eurydice has been adapted for the stage countless times before, its emphasis on music an obvious attraction. And it’s the music of Mitchell’s mythic re-imagining that hits the headlines here: most critics can’t help but nod along.
“Whether you call it a folk opera, a hip oratorio or a musicalised myth, it boasts some cracking songs that far outweigh its dramatic shortcomings,” says Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★), and Marianka Swain (ArtsDesk, ★★★★) concurs, writing that “Mitchell’s score is gripping throughout, leaping from jazz to blues rock to indie folk to operatic and anthemic”.
“The wonderfully diverse songs of Mitchell’s expanded, virtually sung-through soundtrack are the bedrock,” extols Andrzej Lukowski (TimeOut, ★★★★). “From the demonic trombone riff that powers opener Road to Hell, through Hades’ stentorian authoritarian anthem Why We Build the Wall, to the graceful encore some two-and-a-half hours later, it is a musically thrilling, lyrically eccentric articulation of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth that has gratifyingly little to do with musical theatre convention.”
Most reviews agree – Mitchell’s score is “infectious” for Will Longman (London Theatre, ★★★), “stomping” for Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★★★) – but some don’t. Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★) thinks the songs are “too lightweight”, and Ann Treneman (Times, ★★) reckons they’re “samey” with “lyrics that are basic to the point of laughable”.
Mitchell has done more than just write some songs, though. She’s also exploded the Orpheus myth into something else entirely, and most critics are impressed.
“The bare bones of the story are familiar, but Mitchell puts an interesting spin on them,” writes Swain, while Crompton observes that “its cleverness – and it is a phenomenally smart show – is that it takes that age-old story and makes it spark in many directions.”
“Unlike other adaptations, though, Anais Mitchell’s folk musical is much more than just a love story,” assert Bano. “Now it’s a metaphor for industrialisation and art’s place within a capitalist society and many other things besides.”
“Bluesy, folky, beautifully paced and musically satisfying, it is a treat,” extols Libby Purves (TheatreCat, ★★★★). “Touching without sentimentality and with enough topical bite to startle without hammering the point.”
It doesn’t work for everyone, though. Longman thinks Mitchell’s story “lacks heart” and has a “lopsided” structure, Treneman thinks the whole thing is “not nearly as interesting as it should be”, and Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★) reckons that, “compared to the ethical or emotional freight of, say, Jean Anouilh’s Eurydice and Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending, elaborate drama is in scarce supply.”
Billington, meanwhile, is a bit confused by Mitchell’s intentions. “Is she saying that, with willpower, we can overturn the patterns of the past?” he asks. “Is she yearning for a cleaner, purer, pre-industrial world? Whatever her mission, she has written exhilarating songs.”
Mitchell’s folksy, bluesy score is generally well-received then, even if the story she tells is rather divisive. Director Chavkin has taken the reins of it for this entirely new, Broadway-bound production, and all the critics think she and designer Hauck done a decent job.
“Whatever its past or future forms, Chavkin’s staging is a superb fit for the Olivier,” writes Swain. “Hauck’s spare, multi-level speakeasy set, which houses the terrific band, puts the emphasis on choral cooperation and fluid, organic storytelling – aided by meaningful use of the revolves and descending platform. That fluidity is vital for the sung-through work, while the unfussy framing retains its folk-based intimacy.”
“Chavkin’s production, even in a large space, preserves the rough theatre elements that are part of the show’s charm,” echoes Billington, while Quentin Letts (Daily Mail, ★★★★) praises “plenty of spectacle and invention” and Ian Shuttleworth (Financial Times, ★★★★) admires the “feeling of organic freedom” Chavkin creates.
“Chavkin oversees some great visual set pieces, particularly making use of the Olivier’s revolve,” agrees Bano. “At one point Hades, Persephone and wafts of haze get sucked into the drum, descending into hell.”
Chavkin’s production is “inspired”, according to Crompton. “Her always stylish direction is massively assisted by David Neumann’s energetic but finely honed choreography,” she adds. “I loved the way that the three Fates slink through the action, winding themselves around the fleeing Eurydice, whispering in her ear. At moments such as these, Hadestown can take the breath away.”
“The set oozes cool and there is no denying it’s got style,” concedes Treneman. “If Vogue curated a show, it would be this one.”
Hadestown comes to London complete with its Broadway cast, including a UK theatre debut for American stage star Page, about whom the most striking thing is, it seems, his voice. It’s “bowel-quakingly low” according to Lukowski and “so deep that it scrapes the gravelly bottom of the underworld he rules” according to Treneman. It’s “the deepest voice I’ve heard”, writes Letts.
“Page is superb as Hades, his great, growling bass casting a spell on those around him, mixing ferocity and tenderness,” says Crompton.
The critics can’t cope with De Shields’ cool, either. He’s “scene-stealingly brilliant as a suavely shamanic Hermes” according to Lukowski, and “completely spellbinding, with hints of mischief and mystery” according to Bano, who adds: “There’s so much style in everything he does.”
Gray and Noblezada are well-received, too. Gray is “boozily magnificent” for Lukowski and “wonderfully wild” for Bano, while Noblezada is “restrained and soulful” for Longman, and “blazingly good” for Swain.
It’s Carney’s Orpheus, though, that lets the side down. He’s a “wet little Herbert” according to Letts, “a bit too boyband” according to Crompton, and “a bit of a drip” according to Bano.
“His voice feels strained and his movements clumsy,” according to Bano. “It’s not his fault that the production has decked him out in tight black jeans, a waistcoat and guitar, like some Stars in Their Eyes Springsteen knockoff, but it doesn’t exactly help.”
Yep, it’s good. It’s not sparked Hamilton levels of hyperbole and euphoria, but Hadestown can bowl into Broadway with its head held high and a score of four-star London review under its arm.
Apart from a few grumbles – a clunking two-star in the Times, a few three-stars elsewhere – the critics generally give Mitchell’s musical the go-ahead.