The long wait for 'Hadestown' to get to Orlando was well worth it

It’s by far the most satisfying show of this Broadway in Orlando season.

click to enlarge Center: Chibueze Ihuoma (Orpheus) and Hannah Whitley (Eurydice) in Hadestown - Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Center: Chibueze Ihuoma (Orpheus) and Hannah Whitley (Eurydice) in Hadestown

When the pandemic put touring theatrical productions on pause, the show I was most sorry to see postponed was Hadestown, Anaïs Mitchell’s 2019 Tony-winning reimagining of the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as a raucous, romantic celebration of American roots music. Two full years after originally scheduled, the show has finally arrived at Orlando’s Dr. Phillips Center (running through Dec. 18).

I’m happy to report the long walk through the darkness was well worth the wait, because this railroad to hell is paved with more than just good intentions; it’s by far the most satisfying show of this Broadway season.

Hermes (Nathan Lee Graham), our fabulously fleet-footed emcee, narrates the tragedy of Orpheus (Chibueze Ihuoma), his naive young protegé whose divinely inspired lyre-plucking might restore springtime to his ravaged homeland. Competing with music-making for Orpheus’ attentions is Eurydice (Hannah Whitley) a wandering waif who captures his heart. Unfortunately, she also catches the eye of Hades (Matthew Patrick Quinn) the Trumpian dictator of the industrial hellscape down the road, whose soused spouse, Persephone (Lindsey Hailes), spends six months each year fleeing from his fumes. 

Hadestown retells a tale as old as time, but when Orpheus’ love is put to the test, his epic battle between trust and doubt hits just as hard today as it did thousands of years ago. And it may still be the same sad song, but it’s a pleasure hearing it sung in such a fresh, joyful way by this inspiring ensemble.

Mitchell’s toe-tapping score weaves jazz, blues and folk music with Tin Pan Alley traditions into songs that feel both timeless and current; they could have been unearthed on a century-old wax record, or be streaming today on WXPN’s “World Cafe.” And with piano-pounding Nathan Koci leading the onstage honky-tonk orchestra, it’s hard not to wish that scenic designer Rachel Hauck’s NOLA-meets-Bartertown juke joint extended beyond the proscenium (as it did in the immersive New York production), so you could jump up on the turntable and join in with choreographer David Neumann’s organic movement.

Much of the show’s success should be credited to co-developer Rachel Chavkin, whose deceptively intricate direction keeps the party flowing through the fun times and hammers home the heartbreak when the time comes. However, it’s up to the touring performers to maintain that tender balance in town after town. Thankfully, this talented cast proves that innovative visions don’t have to be blunted by the road. Ihuoma’s angelic falsetto and open face make him the ideal innocent, and his tender chemistry with Whitley — whose gorgeously gruff voice would make her a great grunge-rock Cosette — helps transform the elliptical epilogue into an epiphany about enduring love, instead of an anti-climactic downer. Likewise, the heat generated by Hailes’ Nina Simone-style sass steams up her scenes with Quinn, even if his Thurl Ravenscroft-worthy bass sometimes makes Hades sound like a cartoon villain. 

Finally, it is the gregarious Graham who is the true hero of Hadestown, as his Hermes channels the love child of Cab Calloway and RuPaul while singing like a classically trained CeeLo Green. As much as I loved Hadestown, what I really want to see is a two-person cabaret with Graham backed by trombonist Emily Fredrickson, the band’s breakout star. I’d sit still for all of Ovid if those two were calling the tunes.

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