A tale from long ago with a fresh, jazzy spin, ‘Hadestown’ speaks to the soul
By Sophia Grimes | Arts Angle Vantage Reporter
Atherton High School, Class of 2023
The house lights dim. The stage lights brighten on a rustic setting. Hermes faces the audience. He introduces mythical gods, each and every important figure in the tale. The lively music begins. Suddenly, you’re sucked into a world of gods and men with a story to tell. This is songwriter Anaïs Mitchell’s “Hadestown,” which opened for its Louisville run on May 16.
The cast of the North American tour of "Hadestown." Photo by T. Charles Erickson. Courtesy PNC Broadway in Louisville.
Set in a New Orleans-inspired environment seemingly of the Depression Era, “Hadestown” follows a talented man named Orpheus (J. Antonio Rodriguez) as he travels far underground to retrieve the love of his life, Eurydice (Hannah Whitley) from the clutches of the King of the Underworld — Hades (Matthew Patrick Quinn). Our charismatic storyteller, Hermes (Nathan Lee Graham), introduces us to the lively goddess of Spring, Persephone (Maria-Christina Oliveras), and the haunting goddesses of destiny or the Fates (Dominique Kempf, Belén Moyano, Nyla Watson).
Then there are the workers. They are present consistently and never fail to bring the house down with their explosive, energetic performances. In “Livin’ It Up on Top,” the workers reflect the idea of bringing the world back to life as they dance with high levels and sharp movements and establish the energy of the show. Though small in number they make up for it with big and loud presentations that the audience can never look away from. The live musicians interact with the cast, in a way making them characters themselves rather than offstage performers. They remain onstage the entire time (except for the drummer), creating an intimate environment and inviting the audience into the world the performers are building.
J. Antonio Rodriguez and company in the North American tour of "Hadestown." Photo by T. Charles Erickson. Courtesy PNC Broadway in Louisville.
When Hermes opens the show in “Road to Hell,” he speaks directly to the audience to create an instant connection outside of the story. Similar situations happen throughout the rest of the performance. When Persephone opens the second act with “Our Lady of the Underground,” she addresses audience members directly and presents the musicians by name. This moment feels more like a conversation rather than a story about a world completely separate from ours.
The music speaks directly to the soul. From swing to blues, every note and every chord is filled with deep emotion and power. Every song takes the show to a whole new level and fills the audience with anticipation for what’s yet to come. The jazz-filled melodies make you feel like jumping up onstage and dancing along to the beat, and the somber tunes pluck at the heartstrings, causing emotions to well up for not just the characters. They create a musical journey that takes the audience through a beautiful story of love and loss.
The show’s technical elements are unlike anything I have ever seen before. Rather than relying completely on the tech crew, the actors take an active role in moments with lighting and set changes. The workers are the most notable in this. In numbers such as “Come Home with Me” and “Livin’ It Up on Top,” they move tables and chairs to configure the set and propel the story forward. It all makes the show much more fascinating to watch.
A perfect example of actors changing sets involves the swinging lights in the iconic song “Wait for Me.” Early in the song, the workers hold the light fixtures and encircle Orpheus as he travels down to Hadestown. By the song’s climax, they have attached the lights to wires from above and let them go. They swing around Orpheus as he adapts to the new obstacles put in his way. What is so alluring about this is the way the audience watches a new environment being built before them and then implemented easily into the show. Even though this world is completely imaginary, “Hadestown” mingles the real and fictional realms. It also reflects our own. The making the story immensely relatable to an audience of any age.
The Muses, Dominique Kempf, Nyla Watson and Belén Moyano, in the North American tour of "Hadestown." Photo by T. Charles Erickson. Courtesy PNC Broadway in Louisville.
There is a lot going on, but nothing feels unnecessary. “Hadestown” has fluidity. Its smooth transitions from moment to moment can be accredited to the passion and heart the director has poured into this production. There is not a second onstage where someone looks out of the moment which implies how much the director cares about giving a good performance.
Still, this tale is a tragedy just like the myth it is based on. It’s a reminder of the truest theme of “Hadestown”: stories are told for people to learn. An ancient quality of the Greek myths is to leave a message behind. “Hadestown” stays true to these roots in the purest fashion.
Sophia Grimes, an Atherton High School senior, is an active member in the theater program and a writer for the school’s magazine, The Aerial. While she has a passion for acting, she also takes great joy in reading and writing. She plans to attend the University of Kentucky for the upcoming fall semester where she will major in secondary education and minor in theater.