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'Hadestown' review: The theme is hell, but the show is heaven

Amber Gray and Patrick Page star in "Hadestown,

Amber Gray and Patrick Page star in "Hadestown, a new musical by Anaïs Mitchell. Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

WHAT "Hadestown"

WHERE Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St.

INFO From $49; 877-250-2929, ticketmaster.com

BOTTOM LINE Achingly beautiful musical modernizes an ancient Greek myth.

"Why We Build the Wall" is a song whose time has come—and has always been. The powerful and prophetic piece of music that ends the first act of the moving (bring tissues) and timely "Hadestown" was written more than 10 years ago, well before current events made the subject a matter of daily political discourse about choices leaders must make to protect their borders.

At a time when so many Broadway shows look to old movies for inspiration, the Anaïs Mitchell musical at the Walter Kerr Theatre has more ancient origins. With music and Rachel Hauck's evocative scenery that  put you in the middle of a timeless New Orleans jazz club, Mitchell updates the heartbreaking Greek going-to-hell-and-back myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to more modern times, along the way enabling thought-provoking considerations of how people in power achieve and maintain control.  

Mitchell has been working on this musical (a folk opera, really; there are few spoken words) for more than 10 years, first as a small community theater road show in Vermont. Deciding the story had potential, she teamed with Rachel Chavkin (a Tony nominee for "Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812") and the two worked on the project together (Chavkin is billed as director and developer), evolving the show through runs at New York Theatre Workshop and London's National Theatre. 

The poignant, enchanting story this powerful duo brings to Broadway is notable mostly for its memorable music and especially haunting lyrics. But the songs come to life through a stunning ensemble, right down to the fabulous onstage orchestra. (Has a trombone player ever won a Tony for best supporting actor?)  Reeve Carney (no trace of that Spider-Man guy) and Eva Noblezada ("Miss Saigon") are achingly sad as the doomed lovers, Patrick Page and Amber Gray smoldering as Hades, sleazy fat-cat ruler of the underworld, and Persephone, the boozy wife who tolerates his reprehensible behavior in order to enjoy his riches. (Old story, right?) Then there's the god Hermes, wonderfully played by Andre de Shields as an all-knowing and droll commentator on the action.   

Like most Greek myths, this one doesn't have a happy ending, but it does offer hope in its suggestion that by repeating such a sad story time and again, things might turn out better next time. After Orpheus and Eurydice are separated forever, the cast gathers in farewell as Orpheus repeats the profound toast he'd made earlier: "To the world we dream about," he says, pausing as they raise their glasses,  "and the one we live in now."  Hear, hear!

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