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Photo by T. Charles Erickson
If a Playhouse Square musical you bought a ticket for started with a song titled "The Road to Hell" and then informed you that the story you were about to see will be long, old, sad and tragic, you might grab your soft pretzel and head for the exit. After all, who needs to sit through all that?
But if you attend Hadestown, now at the Connor Palace theater and beginning exactly as described, you will be richly compensated. This award-winning creation of singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell (music, lyrics and book), many years in the making, is a feast for the mind as its deft words weave together the oft-told Greek myths involving doomed lovers Orpheus and Eurydice, and the fractured marriage of Persephone (goddess of spring) to Hades, the godfather of the underworld.
This is no dry seminar though, since the tales are told almost entirely via song and metaphor with hell portrayed as a maximally-industrialized mining town. The music is infused with infectious beats along with jazz, Dixieland and bluesy touches that work splendidly—at times. In this sung-through musical, those times primarily exist in the first act of this 2 1/2-hour production.
That said Hadestown is mostly kickass, featuring a few songs that you'll want to put on your Spotify playlist. The emcee for the evening is Hermes (a smooth and seductive Nathan Lee Graham), the conductor of the train that transports the dead to Hades. His weirdly uplifting song "Road to Hell" conveniently introduces all the main characters so you don't have to figure it out for yourself.
In "Any Way the Wind Blows" we encounter the runaway girl Eurydice (nicely edgy Hannah Whitley) who complains about the weather being either too cold or too hot, indicating she's lived in Cleveland at some time in the past. Off-put by temperature extremes, she is attracted to the lukewarm guitar-plucker and wannabe songwriter Orpheus (played by the appropriately tepid Chibueze Ihuoma) as her main squeeze.
While that romance heats up, we meet Persephone (Brit West) in the up-tempo "Livin' It Up On Top," a song that refers to the six months she is allowed to frolic in warm weather on the good side of the grass. When it's time, she has to return to the underworld (via an elevator) and the sleazy clutches of her hubby Hades, the egomaniac who named his kingdom of dead, hard-working slaves after himself. As we know, their nasty pre-nup has left us with six months of cold, so thanks for that.
The production's only clear mistake is a case of mixed metaphors regarding the transport to hell. It is clearly not Hermes' train, nor a boat ride across the River Styx, nor the onstage freight elevator with a clamshell door. As we know from a previous President, the real road to hell is a slow glide down a golden escalator.
In any case, the signature song "Way Down Hadestown" lights up the stage as Hermes leads the company in a lively explication of the industrial nightmare of the underworld that Hades oversees: "Thrown to the bottom of a Sing Sing cell/Where the little wheel squeals and the big wheel groans/And you better forget about your wishing well."
As directed by Rachel Chavkin, the music is performed by an onstage ensemble of seven musicians led by Eric Kang and featured trombonist Emily Fredrickson. They play with the raw, intentionally imprecise energy of a French Quarter band that's had a couple-too-many Sazeracs. One big benefit is you can understand all the lyrics since they're not drowned out by an over-amplified pit orchestra.
Other powerful songs include "Hey, Little Songbird," in which Hades (the deep-voiced but less than entirely intimidating Matthew Patrick Quinn) importunes Eurydice to join him by dumping on Orpheus: "He's some kind of poet and he's penniless?.../He'll write you a poem when the power's out/Hey, why not fly south for the winter?" The three Fates—Dominique Kemp, Belén Moyano, and Nyla Watson—are featured in the irresistible "When the Chips Are Down," and the Act One closer invokes current political tensions in the shattering "Why We Build the Wall."
About a third of the Act Two songs are reprises and most of the others don't rise to the musical drive and lyrical intention to the ones that came before. This makes the show feel overlong, which is a shame since the musical landscape created by Mitchell and Chavkin is truly magnificent.
Myths give us a different way to view our life, which is why they remain so popular and evocative. And given our current situation, from climate change to prejudice to political unrest, we might agree with Hades when he sings, "Nothing comes of the songs people sing...and the world is a bird on a spit in the sky."
Through February 19 at Playhouse Square, Connor Palace Theater, 1615 Euclid Ave., playhousesquare.org, 216-241-6000.