Hadestown review: Original Broadway cast vs. touring cast!

Last weekend, we were lucky enough to see Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown for the second time — the first time for my husband and my oldest daughter and son (for whom the trip was a birthday present), and the second time for me and my third oldest daughter. We saw it in the summer of 2019 on Broadway and I gave it a short review here. (If you’re not familiar with the show, you might want to click through there first, which actually discusses the plot and themes.)

This review will contain spoilers, but the whole thing of Hadestown is that we already know how the story turns out. It’s many thousands of years old, for one thing; and also, this is what humans do: We enter into stories that we know are tragedies, thinking maybe it will turn out different this time. So there really aren’t any spoilers. 

Well, I had such a magnificent experience with the original cast that, when I was waiting for this show with the touring cast to begin, I was telling myself very sternly that it’s normal and right for a different cast to put their own mark on their roles. It’s also true that Hadestown, while a profoundly emotional work, is not emotionally manipulative, and doesn’t deliver the same experience every time anyway. So it wasn’t going to be exactly the same.

That said, I couldn’t help comparing the two casts and productions in my head as we watched, so here is what I thought.

First, we saw the original Broadway production at the Walter Kerr Theater, which is much smaller and more intimate. Here was our view of the stage in NYC in 2019:

and here was the view from our seats in Boston last weekend:

So you can see, it was going to be a different experience anyway. 

There were some minor changes to the set and the way it moved around and lit, although it was hard to put my finger on what. The main thing I noticed was that, after Orpheus turns and Eurydice disappears away into the underworld, in this production she is swallowed up by a mouth-like aperture in the back (which also served as a train platform and other set pieces), rather than sinking down via a round platform built into the center of the stage (which is how they did it in NY). This arrangement, the aperture in the back, was surprisingly much more effective, and possibly done because it was bigger theater and, if they used the floor trick, the audience might see Eurydice scooting out a trap door (as I did from the balcony when they staged it this way at Walter Kerr!). It was very clear that Orpheus was within inches of reaching fresh air and sunshine when he stopped and turned, and Eurydice was gobbled up by the dark underworld, so it worked well (which didn’t stop the teenage girl in front of me from whisper-shouting, “Wait, wha happened?” right at that shattering moment when everyone in the theater momentarily died of grief. oh well!).

So: Original Broadway cast vs. touring cast! 

The original Hermes was André De Shields; the touring Hermes was Levi Kreis. Ahem. Partly due to my very poor eyesight, my face blindness, and just my general confusion as I encounter life, I was fairly sure they had switched actors halfway through the production, and I couldn’t wait to talk about how weird it was that they did it without saying anything about it. When nobody wanted to talk about it, I gradually surmised that it was actually Levi Kreis all the way through; he had simply taken his hat off. It’s a trial, being me. But still, that will tell you something about this actor. He was fine, but not especially memorable, and did not do much to convey that he had been around for millennia and had seen some stuff (but could still be moved). He was just sort of a ringmaster. 

Orpheus: Reeve Carney is the original. I preferred the new guy, Nicholas Barasch, but I could go either way with this role. Barasch’s voice was bigger and more sturdy and he came across as a little less weird, but still sufficiently lost and earnest, and sufficiently otherworldly. I think Carney did more with his body to convey who he was, and Barasch did more with his voice. Both very affecting. He made me cry (not that I’m made of stone).

Hades is Patrick Page in the original cast,  Kevyn Morrow for touring. This is the only one that I felt really just couldn’t possibly be a fair comparison. Patrick Page was just preternaturally . . . Hadeslike. His voice penetrates in a way that most human voices don’t. Morrow had a thundering voice and a commanding, sinister, predatory presence, and when he heard Orpheus’ song and it reached him, and when he reconciled with Persephone, you believed it. The lyrics were a little indistinct sometimes, which is a shame. But in any other universe, without the comparison, he would have brought the house down. Really, no complaints. 

The original Persephone Amber Gray; the touring, Kimberly Marable. This is the only touring performance I thought was lacking. Marable just didn’t make much of an impression on me, and she really must! She’s Our Lady of the Underground! It is a very difficult, strange role, no mistake. But Marable’s Persephone came across mainly as frustrated and vulgar, without much depth. Again, maybe it’s just unfair to have to follow Amber Gray, whose Persephone is so many-layered and delicately demented. Amber Gray defied gravity when she danced; Marable was merely very energetic. However, the critic in my head mostly shut up about halfway through, and by the time the story shifted to the relationship between Hades and Persephone, I was totally with them. It’s a good story. 

The original Eurydice was Eva Noblezada, and the touring one is Morgan Siobhan Green. This was a clear improvement. Noblezada’s voice and acting struck me as understudy quality, and not on the same par with the rest of that cast. Green, though, was stellar. Her voice was piercing, and it and her body language added an awkward and frantic tone that helped round out her character a bit, making her more than just a drama girl. 

The Fates were scary and great. I’m afraid I didn’t notice much difference between the two casts here. They’re malevolent and otherworldly and funny and mean, and their harmonies were just impeccable. Maybe the original cast were slightly more skilled dancers, but I don’t know. 

Let’s talk about Eurydice! Orpheus is . . . poetry, basically, right? He’s the thing that makes you weep, rather than the thing that brings you bread and a roof over your head. But people need him desperately, because when they go without him and his songs, they end up, you know, dead, and/or stomping around in a circle wearing dirty overalls and building a wall for no reason. (My kids thought they pushed the “let’s unionize, everybody!” aspect of this production a little too hard, and said that “If It’s True” was basically a scene from Newsies, but I thought it was easy enough to take or leave, and you could certainly read it as being just about humanity, and not necessarily political).  

Anyway, I was struck this time around by how strange it is that Orpheus is the one who’s put to the test at the end, rather than Eurydice. She is, after all, the reason they’re in this pickle. She signs away her soul just for a mouthful of food; so why isn’t she the one being tested at the end, to win their escape? But of course the reason she was lost was that she called and called on Orpheus, and he didn’t hear her, because he was too busy writing his dang song that would save the world. Pff, poets. Players. (But . . . he wasn’t just imagining it! He really could write such a song! And it really did change the world, and change the course of the story, maybe, or it might, next time, come winter . . . )

Anyway, as I understand it, the original score, which got taken out of the stage version, included more about Orpheus majorly overpromising things to Eurydice and then spectacularly failing to deliver, which explains their dynamic a little better. As it is, I think there’s a bit of a hole in the plot, or a bit of a hole in the character of Eurydice as written. This is my one and only quibble with the way the story is put together: That Eurydice’s actions make the least sense, and yet she’s the one whose actions get explicitly explained the most.

But, as the fates remind us, it’s easy to criticize when you have a full belly. Maybe next time, in a different frame of mind, I’ll come back to this show and her choice will make perfect sense to me. That’s the kind of show it is. 

Overall, I adored it. Damien and the kids who hadn’t seen it yet were blown away. It’s a revolutionary piece of musical theater, and I believe people will be performing it for hundreds of years. If you can possibly see it performed by either cast, do so!

A final note on the Boston Opera House, for what it’s worth: Everyone was required to wear masks, and they were requiring proof of vaccination to get in, but they were pretty lenient about what counted as proof. I somehow lost my vaccination card, so they let me show ID and let Damien vouch that I had been vaccinated along with him. (We kind of felt like anyone paying money to see an Anaïs Mitchell show is probably vaccinated.)

The Boston Opera House is just a few blocks away from Chinatown, so we grabbed a quick dinner at The Dumpling Cafe and YOU GUYS. I may drive back to Boston just to get more duck buns. DUCK BUNS. I was so sad we didn’t have time to sit there for three hours ordering everything on the menu, because it was spectacular. Definitely go there, too. 

What I saw (and of course heard) at the Green River Festival

On our absolute last day of summer vacation this Sunday, Clara and I went to the final day of Green River Festival in Greenfield, MA. The act she most wanted to catch was Bonny Light Horseman; my must-see was Son Little. 

I must warn you, I like a lot of what calls itself folk music, but I really despise the folk music scene, so this is a fairly cranky review. I did like a lot of the music. But I had forgotten how many people apparently attend shows like this to put on a show. There was so much “Can you guys even believe how ecstatic and unselfconscious I am right now?” stuff going on. 

The main stage show opened with Rachel Baiman, who has a nice enough voice, but delivered unremarkable lefty folk snark that didn’t hold my attention. Her new album is called Cycles (no, not Vagabonds, Martyrs, and Quilts) with a song called “Shame” and it’s all about how you shouldn’t shame women for having bodies. I know that’s what it’s about, because she told us so before she sang it (and she was right, that’s what it was about). Great works of art can always be summarized in a line or two, preferably a line that makes everyone go, “Wooooo!” I hope you’re writing this down so you, too, can be a artist. 

Bonny Light Horseman was next, and they are remarkable. They are a supergroup made up of Anaïs Mitchell (here’s my quick review of her astounding show Hadestown), Eric D. Johnson of Fruit Bats, and Josh Kaufman of various things I haven’t heard of (okay, I also haven’t heard of Fruit Bats). The first thing they did was turn the bass down, which I took as a work of mercy and professionalism. If you can’t reach your audience without blasting them to death, maybe you need to go back and craft your piece a bit more. 

Bonny Light Horseman does a lot reworked old English ballads mixed in with whatever other stuff they feel like, as far as I can tell.  All of it is interesting, and some of it is stunning — the material, the arrangements, the voices, the performances.

They performed a few new songs they’re still working on, which they described as “hot tub music.” I’m kicking myself for not writing down the lyrics of some of the new songs they performed, but they really got me. Here’s a clip of the actual show that someone posted on YouTube:

They were generous performers, too, and gave the impression that they like each other and liked being on stage. Crazy how many professionals just don’t do that. They put on a really soulful show that kept my attention the whole time. 

Anaïs Mitchell then introduced Ani DiFranco, and that’s when I started to wish we had set up our blanket on the other end of the field, upwind of the great wall of weed smoke. Weed has its uses, but it certainly does smell like poo. Yes, you can buy expensive weed, which then smells like expensive poo. 

Anyway, Ani DiFranco. She seems completely unchanged from twenty or thirty years ago, when she emerged as this tiny, intense ball of energy and angst and talent and rank immaturity. Whenever I hear her music, I think: “Wow, she’s so good! Why don’t I listen to her more?” and then a few songs in, I’m like, “Okay, that’s enough.”  She told the audience that they were her most enduring and reliable long-term relationship, and I know it was a joke, and I know that’s her schtick, but what a thing to say. 

And it’s not just that she’s too intense or too personal or something. Goodness knows I’ve made a buck or two off baring my soul to strangers. It’s that she can write very clever, wrenching, heartfelt lyrics . . . and a lot of the time, she doesn’t bother, because she knows she can get away with writing stuff like this, instead:

“You get to run the world
In your special way
You get much more
Much more than your say
Government, religion
It’s all just patriarchy
I must insist you leave
This one thing to me”

That’s just poorly written, and I’m not just saying that because I was sitting on a fleece Our Lady of Guadalupe blanket from Walmart and felt fairly uncomfortable in more ways that one at this point. (If you are wondering at what age one becomes officially too old to sit on the ground all day, it is 46) The song did extract a “WOOOOOO!” from the crowd at all the right moments, so I guess it did its job. Woo, woo, woo everybody. No shame! Tampons! I don’t know why I’m so unhappy but probably I shouldn’t change anything about my life! Wooo!

By the time we got up to “Swan Dive,” there were absolute phalanxes of stoned “this is what a feminist” dudes performatively shaking their potato-fed asses back and forth and jabbing their fingers defiantly in the air, and the sun was beating down through the clouds, and one braless lady in a crinkly broom skirt dragged a shrinking little chicken-winged girl up to the standing section, shoved a pride flag in her hand, and dragooned the child into a long, joyless dance in front of everyone, not that anyone was paying attention, because they were too caught up in their own grinning sweating triumphant vibe. Kid couldn’t have been older than 7 or 8 years old, and the music was frankly terrifying at this point –extremely intense and absolutely deafening, and designed to be emotionally overwhelming.

I wanted to arrest absolutely everyone there, on the grounds that you need to grow up.  It was the phoniness that got me. I don’t begrudge anybody to feel what they feel, but I can tell a faker when I see one, and there were a shitload of fakers in that crowd with their patched handkerchief skirts and their boho twine and copper bracelets and their floppy hats and their pedicures and their high priced poo. 

Well, then I got up and bought myself a falafel wrap and gobbled it up, and felt a little more cheerful. Chickpea products always cheer me up. I don’t make the rules. I also took a long walk around the field and got the heck away from the amps, which I should have done hours ago. 

It was late and we were tired but figured we had stayed that long, we might as well stick it out and wait for the one act I really wanted to see, which was Son Little. While we waited, we caught Sierra Ferrell on a side stage, and boy, was she fun. She has an old timey voice, clear as a bell, chewy as taffy, and she absolutely nails the aesthetic, but her songs sounded like originals. I can’t remember if she performed this one, but here’s a good example of how she sounds:

A real musician, a great performer. There was actual spontaneous dancing breaking out in front of this stage, and it was a pleasure to see. Apparently she and her band had some kind of calamitous time getting to the show, so Clara made a point of standing in line to buy one of her CDs and she said she was very nice in person. Definitely going to track down more of her work. Here’s another one she did:

Then finally, as the sun was setting, we saw Son Little.  I used to listen to him constantly, and poor tender-hearted Benny, who was a toddler, used to worry about him so much.

I still worry about him. He’s sort of unreliable. He sang “Loser Blues,” which didn’t sound like much when I heard it recorded, but hearing it live, I just about fell apart.

 

Anyway, after a long, hot afternoon of tampon music, it did not bother me one little bit to pick up my blanket, go sit in the shade, and listen to a young man sing about how he’s not sure why his girlfriend is mad, but what about if they just do it, huh? That’s what his songs are mostly about, and he has a point.

He tried to get the audience to sing along or at very least clap along, but by that time, we had all been fried by the sun for eight hours and, honestly, we may have just mostly been too white to begin with. I felt bad, but when people try and get me to clap along, I know it’s going to go badly eventually. So I just sat there and stared and then clapped politely at the end. I still think this was better than whatever that girl with the overalls and the hula hoop thought she was doing. 

I got myself a little paper cup of pork dumplings and coconut curry, and something that claimed to be Vietnamese ginger limeade and tasted an awful lot like Juicy Juice, but it had ice in it and it was fine. I also got a horrible sunburn, but that’s nobody’s fault but my own. 

And that’s my review. It was a well-run show, very orderly. Lots of great food vendors, plenty of bathrooms, everything was well-marked, and there was plenty of room to spread out so I wasn’t worried about covid.  I think everyone should smoke a little less weed and maybe give the patriarchy a second chance, like on alternate weekends, and then see if we can’t come up with some better music for the kids. Okay, thanks.