Review: The Metamorphosis of ‘Hadestown,’ From Cool to Gorgeous

All your favourite Greeks are heading someplace in “Hadestown,” the splendid, hypnotic and considerably hyperactive musical that opened on Wednesday night time after its personal twisty 13-year highway to Broadway.

Eurydice descends to the underworld; Orpheus follows to retrieve her. Persephone spends six months aboveground dwelling the great life of summer time and music earlier than returning for six months beneath with Hades. (He’s her husband.) Hermes, of course, has wings on his toes. And the Fates (no less than on this model) are all the time darting about, minding everybody’s enterprise.

But watching “Hadestown” unfold so gorgeously on the Walter Kerr Theater, I discovered myself pondering of different Greek characters: these fortunate few saved from heartbreak by radical metamorphoses.

That’s as a result of “Hadestown” — written by Anaïs Mitchell, developed and directed by Rachel Chavkin — has itself been radically reworked. What’s onstage on the Kerr is sort of unrecognizably completely different from the model I noticed at New York Theater Workshop in 2016. There, it was garbled and treasured, too cool for its personal good, not to mention Broadway.

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To make these points, “Hadestown” moves the tale to an earth that resembles sassy New Orleans, with hell a demonic foundry. As such, Ms. Mitchell’s score combines folk, pop and Dixieland with rhythmic work shanties and, for the lovers, ethereal arias. All of it sounds great in swinging arrangements for a terrific seven-piece onstage band.

Other than some reordering, that’s mostly just as it was three years ago — at least on the surface. But if there’s one thing this “Hadestown” is pushing, it’s the idea that what really matters is happening where you can’t see it.

Underneath the hood, a million small adjustments have been made, especially to the lyrics, which have shed some of their pop haze in favor of specificity. The Fates, a girl-group trio, now feel more integral to the action, not just witty commenters on it. And a new chorus of five hunky workers expands not only the sound but also the theme of security attained at the expense of freedom.

Yet the most obvious transformation is visual: “Hadestown” is now performed on a proscenium stage instead of in a miniature Greek amphitheater. Though still high-concept, Rachel Hauck’s single set depicts a recognizable idea of place: a basement jazz joint that miraculously turns into the furnace room of Hades’ factory. This is emblematic of the production’s choice to deliver the story to the audience in as close to the Broadway manner as the material can accommodate.

In truth, it can only accommodate so much. “Hadestown,” even with the heat turned up, is still a somewhat abstract experience, mediated by several layers of narration from Hermes, the Fates and many of the songs. A feeling is as likely to be described as enacted, and Ms. Mitchell develops her larger themes mostly through metaphor. This can get tiring; even though so much of what happens happens beautifully, I began to feel it would be better shorter.

The main story suffers most from this problem: Outside of their arias, Orpheus and Eurydice are blandly written and thus performed. What starts off as a smart riff on “Rent” — poor bohemian girl falls for musician who can’t finish his song — soon becomes vague and merely pretty. Attempts to complicate the characters’ psychology backfire, and their climactic ascent from the underworld, the one thing that worked perfectly downtown, now doesn’t. They merely walk in circles.

Luckily, the second story is direct and vivid throughout. Mr. Page, rocking a Leon Redbone look and rumble, makes an electrifyingly maleficent Hades, even without playing up the Trumpian parallels that have overtaken the material. (One of his songs, written more than a decade ago, is called “Why We Build the Wall.”)

And Ms. Gray, never better, makes something quite brilliant out of Persephone: a free spirit, a loose cannon, a first lady co-opted by wealth yet emotionally subversive. When, as part of the curtain call, she sings the score’s loveliest number — “I Raise My Cup” — you at last wish the show would slow down so you could live in the glowy moment forever.

Along the way there, Ms. Chavkin has probably come as close as anyone could to selling a cerebral downtown story as state-of-the-art Broadway entertainment. Like the sets and musical arrangements, the costumes (by Michael Krass), the lighting (by Bradley King) and the sound design (by Nevin Steinberg and Jessica Paz) are as good as it gets.

The result is just as busily beautiful as Ms. Chavkin’s production of “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” — and more coherent. Which almost gets you over the hiccup that a show so fundamentally despairing (“It’s a sad song”) is now so aggressively welcoming.

Don’t let that distract you, though, from its quiet point, buried in a lyric near the end: that we sing the sad song again and again the way we play solitaire: “as if it might turn out this time.”

For “Hadestown” — if not yet for us — it has.

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