When this musical opened at the National Theatre in mid-November 2018, it was generally welcomed by critics who bought into its fusion of Greek mythology and New Orleans jazz.
With years in the making, and runs in New York and Canada, this has grown from a concept album for Anaïs Mitchell (who wrote book and lyrics, and composed the score which has now been lushly rearranged for a small band by Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose) to a fully-fledged musical, bound next for Broadway.
At the top of the show, the band and cast walk on to a richly detailed set, waving “hi” to the audience, who are pulled into the action by a Cab Calloway-like Hermes (played by veteran musical performer André De Shields), who turns on a toothy smile on cue and launches into the first song “On the Road to Hell” which brings the main characters to our notice.
Although the songs are memorable, it takes a while for the show to get going, although from the start Eva Noblezada (who was so memorable in Miss Saigon) is in terrific voice as Eurydice, a “hungry girl”, a “little songbird”, who spars with Orpheus (Reeve Carney) before getting sidetracked by the growling, Leonard Cohen-like gravel bass of Patrick Page’s Hades, “king of iron, king of steel”.
The modern setting suits some of the characters – Persephone (Amber Gray), who twenty years earlier might have been the bright and caring young girl we saw on stage in Mythic is now half-sozzled, cynical, and even though she professes to hate the underworld, she still unthinkingly takes her husband’s hand when he arrives early to take her back and to condemn the upper world to months of want and winter.
Orpheus is still a poet, but more of a student strummer, who utilises the melody of the Gods to capture the heart of Eurydice, and to thaw the heart of the stone-flinted Hades. Carney – who has played this role in all productions so far – may have a thin voice at times, but it is tuneful, and his Romeo and Juliet kind of teenage emotional attachment to the ballsy Eurydice convinces.
As well as the main principals, there are the three Fates, the chorus who cajole, condemn and curse the central couple, and a group of hardworking singer-dancers, who populate Hermes’ bar and later, Hades’ sweating workers who “build the wall”. Some reviewers have chosen to take the anthemic song against “our enemies” to reflect the foreign policy of the 45th President of the USA, but the song appears to have come first, and now presents an interesting coincidence.
There are moments of pure emotional pleasure – Eurydice’s final descent, Hades and Persephone remembering their first meeting in the garden, the workers trying to be free “if he can do it, so can she, if she can do it, so can we”, Hermes raising his glass to the song with the sad ending, the frenzied dancing to a drum solo, Eurydice leaving her red rose behind (“she called your name but you weren’t listening”), and Page’s depths of earth vocalising.
After the bows, though, there’s a song “for Orpheus, and all of us”, which is quiet, and sad, and yet uplifting. This is in stark contrast to the spectacle of the triple revolve and the pulsing music which has gone before, and works perfectly.