Hadestown

It’s taken a hell of a time to get here, but finally, Hell has arrived in London’s West End.

Thank God Hell now has a place in the West End. Or rather, thank Hades!

And bloody hell, the Hell of Hadestown is still hellishly good!

The show’s premise is not the easiest to sell on paper. As is made clear from the very first number, this is “a sad song…but we’re gonna sing it anyway.” Sad is an understatement. Hadestown is the stuff of Greek tragedy. Literally.

It tells the fatal love story of Orpheus the poet, and his muse Eurydice. Playing a key role in their downfall is god of the Underworld, Hades (Zachary James) whose fiery temper is only slightly metered by his wife Persephone (Gloria Onitiri), the goddess of spring.

An almost entirely sung-through jazzy, bluesy, score maintains a consistency to numbers that range from workers’ chant to lovelorn lament. In the jukebox musical era, it is refreshingly old school to see a show whose every number is immediately recognisable as originating from it. It’s Lloyd-Webber-esque.

And it’s performed with the intimacy of a live gig: a secret show that few people know about.

Like I said, a "Greek tragedy inspired jazz gig" may not have you hurriedly opening a browser to pull up Ticketmaster. But when it first appeared in London, filling the National Theatre’s Olivier stage, it was difficult not to get caught up by its energy and sense of rebellion. Once seen, any thoughts of these being odd bedfellows quickly disappeared.

But it may explain the epic journey taken by the show’s writer, Anais Mitchell. When it opened at the National, it had taken 12 years to get from the initial idea to concept album to this final pre-Broadway production.

That was 2018. It has taken half as long again for it to finally return. No doubt a global pandemic made its impact. But it’s also possible that Broadway didn’t want to share what it eventually realised it had.

The US woke up to the fact that Hadestown was fresh, exciting, and already a classic musical. The Broadway production picked up 8 of its 13 Tony Award nominations and bagged another 13 major gongs along the way.

Six years no doubt gives halcyon tinges to memories of the first London outing. This new production lacks some of the jaw-dropping impact of the original. It’s partly due to timing. In 2018, we were a year into Trump’s presidency. Though unplanned, it was impossible not to draw parallels with the megalomania of the devilish Hades and his drive to “Build a Wall.”

But the original cast also contained some breathtaking performances. Andre de Shields’ shoe-shuffling Hermes was a hypnotising wonder. Amber Grey’s Persephone was aflame as she brought summer to the earth. The rich dark chocolatey voice of Patrick Page made you willing to sell your own soul to his Hades.

At the time I said it was “casting so good that you worry for the next production.” Whilst the performances are strong across the board here, none quite equal that rare “stuck in memory forever” level of the original.

But it’s a high, arguably unreachable, bar. It’s to their credit that this cast want to own their version, not aim for a Disney franchise-esque carbon copy.

As our story’s narrator opens the show, the now female Hermes is a clear sign of this intention. Melanie La Barrie is less de Shields’ smooth operator, and more expressive show diva. There can’t be a note in her impressive vocal range that doesn’t get airtime. She places Hermes at the very core of the show, as though not simply recounting a myth, but pulling the strings to the puppets of her story.

Though the Earth side of the setting resembles a New Orleans speakeasy, its non-specific intention is bolstered by the other leads using their natural accents. It adds a depth of realism to characters that are as far from reality as Greek mythology will dictate.

So, the glassy-eyed, hopeless Orpheus seems less grating and more romantic given the Irish lilts of Donal Finn. (Though the forced falsetto of his numbers still makes his the skippable tracks for my ear.) The flat vowel sounds of Grace Hodgett Young’s Midlands accent makes her ever-hungry Eurydice more grounded and self-aware, than winsome and fragile.

The rest of the cast reflect this melting pot of individuality and the appeal of the show is strengthened by its proactive inclusivity. The chorus are Ziplock-tight and seem to number more than their five (two less than the NT production). And the Fates – Bella Brown, Madeleine Charlemagne, and Allie Daniel – mytholigised as being practically identical, are intentionally not. It makes their symbiosis even more eery as they slink round the stage like three parts of an amorphous whole.

This individuality is reflected in the show’s most ardent fans, seen in a press night audience highly skewed to the young and the gender-fluid. In 2018, Hadestown was already building a covert groundswell of fervent fandom. Their numbers have grown along with the show’s awards and plaudits, but they maintain an intensity of ownership.

The intimacy this creates very much suits the cosy Lyric theatre, or ‘home’ as I imagine they will call it for a good few years. Watch it alone and you’re likely to make a friend with the person next to you.

It may have taken 20 years of Mitchell’s life so far, but it feels like it is being constantly refreshed with each new production. Not by giving it new songs or staging, but as though every cast gives it a rebirth.

This Hadestown combines the energy of youth with the confidence that it ain’t no flash in the pan. To paraphrase Hermes’ closing number, this may be an old song, it may be a sad song, but we can be sure they’re gonna sing it again and again and again. Thank God Hell now has a place in the West End. Or rather, thank Hades.

Visit Show Website

Reviews by Simon Ximenez

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★★★★
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The Blurb

HADESTOWN, the acclaimed Broadway musical phenomenon by singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell and director Rachel Chavkin makes its long-awaited West End premiere in February 2024 at the Lyric Theatre. ‘An epic celebration of music, togetherness and hope’ (Forbes).

HADESTOWN is the winner of 8 Tony Awards® including Best Musical and the Grammy Award® for Best Musical Theatre Album.

HADESTOWN takes you on an unforgettable journey to the underworld and back, intertwining two mythic love stories – that of young dreamers Orpheus and Eurydice, and that of King Hades and his wife Persephone.

A deeply resonant and defiantly hopeful theatrical experience, HADESTOWN invites you to imagine how the world could be.

‘Your next musical theatre obsession’ (Vogue). ‘Sumptuous. Gorgeous. As good as it gets’ (New York Times) ‘A transporting musical hit! Anaïs Mitchell’s score is a joyful combination of folk, pop, Dixieland and blues. You’ll be singing it in your head for days’ (Time Out)

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