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Anais Mitchell's "Hadestown"

The Fates and Hermes (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The Fates and Hermes (Photo: Joan Marcus)


About seven years ago the gifted singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell appeared on my program and performed a compelling song called "Why We Build The Wall" from a folk opera, Hadestown, she'd written, based on the classical myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. At that point it had received some local productions in Vermont, where she lived. A year or two later she released an album of the songs from Hadestown, featuring Justin Vernon of Bon Iver as Orpheus, Anais as Eurydice, Ani DiFranco as Persephone, and Greg Brown as Hades, the king of the underworld. Now her pet project is being performed Off Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop, and I wouldn't change a thing about this practically perfect production.

Anaïs doesn't perform onstage, but the superb cast is blessed with talent and attitude. The beautiful Nabiyah Be is captivating as Eurydice, so who can blame sweet-voiced Damon Dauno as Orpheus for being smitten? Chris Sullivan plays Hermes the messenger (and de facto narrator) with swagger, Amber Grey is an earthy Persephone, and the three Fates (Shaina Taub, Lulu Fall, and Jessie Shelton) pass through the action with impeccable harmonies. As excellent as they all are, the real casting coup might be Patrick Page (a veteran of Broadway productions such as Spider-Man and Grinch), who commands the stage with his basso voice and glint of humor as Hades.

Anais is fortunate to have entrusted the direction to Rachel Chavkin, who has a clear vision for the material. The spare set is dominated by a gnarly, fairy tale tree, which could have come from Into the Woods. As with the brilliant Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, which she also directed, the action is immersive, with the cast sinuously moving in and out of the audience, which surrounds the small stage.  As a result, you're carried along by the music of the sung-through production, played by an excellent onstage band, led by Liam Robinson.

The legend of Orpheus and Eurydice has timeless power because of the clash between the idealistic lovers ("Let the world we dream about be the one we live in now," they sing) and the cynical, authoritarian King Hades ("the wall keeps out the enemy/And we build the wall to keep us free" - sound familiar?). And, of course, it ends tragically.

This production is only scheduled to run through July 3, but if we're lucky, perhaps The New York Theatre Workshop, which is famous for incubating hits like Rent and Once, will find a way for this little gem to reach a wider audience.