Hadestown Cast (Photo: T Charles Erikson)

How do you adapt an ancient Greek tragedy into an uplifting modern musical? In the case of HADESTOWN, look to indie-folk musician and playwright Anais Mitchell who blends contemporary issues into a timeless story, with great music, brilliant choreography, and a compelling plot.

The award-winning musical HADESTOWN is in town at the Providence Performing Arts Center through Sunday, March 26. The show was a breakthrough for singer-songwriter Mitchell, who first developed the musical as a “folk opera” in 2006. It took a few years to get to Broadway; once it did, it was an instant hit.

The 2019 Tony Award-winning play for “Best Musical” (plus seven more) is a story about light and darkness, illuminating the timeless struggle between good and evil. I won’t tell you who wins, but the voyage of discovery is satisfying. Along the route, you meet compelling characters who sing and dance their way into your heart. As contemporary musicals go, this is one of the great ones – on many levels.

Of course, good stories can be set and placed anywhere and at any time – Act I of Hadestown is set in a depression-era jazz club, where those who are down on their luck gather. Act II shifts to a gritty industrial underworld, where the ancient god Hades rules. Beneath it all, the story offers a deep critique of capitalism and a warning of environmental catastrophe. 

Thematically, the show is heavily layered in allegory. Based on the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, it’s about a young man’s struggle to compose a song intended to bring the return of Spring, as the seasonal patterns have been thrown off due to environmental damage. That story of young love is at the forefront as Orpheus, played brilliantly on Tuesday by understudy Jordan Bollwerk, falls for Eurydice, a lost soul played by Hannah Whitley.

But pleasing the gods is not always that easy. Especially those ancient Greek ones.

The music is superb and integrates seamlessly, blending New Orleans jazz, midwestern America, and modern pop with musicians on stage occasionally mingling with the actors. The choreography is perfect, appropriate for the set and setting, and not excessively over the top. Thematically, the show resonates, reflecting our present-day political environment.

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There are standout performances all around. With perhaps the deepest bass in theatre, Matthew Patrick Quinn is exceptional as Hades, King of the Underworld, and Lana Gordon is equally impressive as his wife Persephone. Nathan Lee Graham plays Hermes, the narrator and fan favorite who pushes the characters along to their ultimate fate.  

The story reminds us that themes of environmental damage, poverty, hunger, and political and social division are ever-present. Mitchell’s songs, first written in 2006, foreshadowed what was to come. She wrote “Why do We Build the Wall” long before it the topic became a political issue.

“The enemy is poverty/And the wall keeps out the enemy/And we build the wall to keep us free,” they sing, from the depths of Hell. It’s dark down there, no doubt, but this musical inspires alongside the best of them.

One more point – this show may not be for everyone. If you’re a fan of traditional Broadway shows like Phantom, Lion King, or Wicked, this show may be a bit of a stretch. But it’s a stretch worth taking. Like Eurydice, just know what you’re getting into.

The extended standing ovation on opening night was well deserved. The intensity and seriousness of this performance is distinct, sincere, and genuine. My wife, who recently saw the show on Broadway, remarked that the Providence cast was stronger than in New York, with better singing and acting. That’s a testament to the hard work of touring productions, who overcome challenges like travel and working in different venues every week.

Get out and see this show! Highly recommended!

Hadestown runs through March 26 at PPAC with evening and matinee performances. Click here for tickets and further details.

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