One of the central ideas of “Hadestown,” the smash hit musical and winner of multiple Tony Awards, is determining what’s worth fighting for.
Orpheus, he of Greek mythology, is willing to walk through the gates of hell – aka “Hadestown” – for his love. Eurydice, his lover, is willing to walk out with him. But she’s only there in the first place because she chose to be. Cold, hungry and destitute, she succumbed to the charms of Hades’ offer of being … somewhere else.
But let’s not cast much blame on Eurydice. It is perfectly easy to not fight at all.
The Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville, which is hosting the musical for seven more shows through Sunday afternoon, finds itself in a fight right now, both internally and externally. In the wake of pulling support for an upcoming Pride event at the venue while citing safety concerns for the community and its staff members, the longstanding arts organization has received backlash from the LGBTQ community and its supporters. In response, the organization said it offered financial support to help secure another venue to host the Pride event. But the community discussions are continuing. There was a protest outside the venue on Saturday (May 20). And nine Walton Arts Center board members have resigned as a result of the decision and the ongoing tensions.
This is a review of a live theater event. But live theater does not happen in a vacuum, and one of the reasons we are drawn to artistic expression in the first place is because it gives us insight into our current lived experience. You might have thought it possible to walk into the Walton Arts Center – with tickets purchased months ago in anticipation of this highly regarded musical – and walk away without having to contemplate the ongoing situation.
But the cast of the musical made sure that wasn’t the case. During the curtain call, they stood onstage to offer a statement from a card with a Pride flag on it. Hermes (played in Fayetteville by “Zoolander” and “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” veteran Nathan Lee Graham) is mythology’s guide to the underworld, and he provides the exposition for the show as it swirls around onstage. It was Graham who delivered the cast statement while wearing Pride flag cufflinks on his suit jacket. He acknowledged the challenges facing the local LGBTQ community and quoted the musical’s song “Living it Up on Top,” which features the following lyrics: “To the world we dream about, and the one we live in now.”
When: Through May 28, 2023
Where: Walton Arts Center, Fayetteville
Cost: Tickets start at $75 plus fees
Tickets: 479-443-5600 or waltonartscenter.org
It’s possible some WAC patrons opted out of attending altogether, and there were empty seats in my proximity during Tuesday night’s opening performance. But there usually are some empty seats. If the current venue drama impacted attendance, it didn’t impact it significantly.
Those who attended made the choice to see a musical that arrives in Fayetteville to much acclaim. Penned by folk songwriter Anais Mitchell, “Hadestown” took a circuitous path to Broadway. It debuted in Vermont in 2006 before finding its way to Broadway in 2019. At the subsequent Tony Awards ceremony, it took home eight victories, including those for Best Musical and Best Original Score. The production onstage now is part of the show’s first national tour, meaning it’s a big get for Fayetteville.
The musical weaves together two mythological love stories. Orpheus is a poor dreamer who happens to be very good at making music. He falls in love with Eurydice, who likewise has nothing but is drawn to Orpheus’ optimism and enthusiasm. We also witness the tempestuous relationship between Hades and Persephone. Her time spent above ground brings prosperity to the world but advances the darkness below. Hades brings her back to the underworld in the fall and the world turns cold for the winter. This concept of a cycle is one that we see repeated in “Hadestown” to dramatic effect.
To save Eurydice from eternal strife, Orpheus must travel into the underworld – the dreary and hopeless Hadestown – where work is a grind and modern conveniences are provided by an angry, all-seeing god. The trip to Hadestown is a journey few attempt and fewer live to tell the story of. But through the power of his songs, Orpheus convinces the proverbial gatekeepers to let him in.
Eurydice is surprisingly easy to find – but more difficult to wrest away. Chief among Hades’ rules is that no one leaves. And even in a case that draws conflict in what remains of his soul, Hades knows that permitting one person to leave would embolden others to try the same – “Show them a crack and they’ll tear down the wall,” Hades sings to Persephone.
While the musical had me clamoring to brush up on Greek mythology, that’s hardly necessary to understand what’s happening in the show. And it’s not particularly helpful, as the tales of Persephone and Hades and Orpheus and Eurydice differ amongst their ancient origins. It’s fair to say that “Hadestown” plays loose with source text, and in painting Hades as a potentially sympathetic creature, it glosses over the idea that he kidnapped Persephone, his niece. Things are easier if we decide to overlook those parts.
Even if you do know how the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice ends, the on-stage resolution of their saga was no less impactful as it played out. The crowd fell totally silent in that moment, and the on-stage orchestra did too. It was meant to linger, and linger it did.
During Tuesday night’s performance, the cast featured all billed actors with the exception of understudy Colin LeMoine, who stepped in to play Orpheus in lieu of J. Antonio Rodriguez. There are a lot of performances to commend, from the on-stage orchestra to the three Fates and more. I particularly liked Matthew Patrick Quinn’s portrayal of Hades. According to the playbill, Quinn “originated several villainous roles” for Disney Cruise Lines, including Scar, Jafar and Captain Hook. He is the quintessential Disney villain and I mean that as a compliment.
Aesthetically, the musical is dark, but that’s to be expected from a show focusing on the underworld. There are moments of light, like Persephone’s welcoming of spring and some swinging lanterns that mark Orpheus’ arduous journey underground. A spinning stage is used frequently in the show and to great effect. It works well to show the toil and despair – always moving, never getting anywhere.
As I submit this review, work is ongoing, and not just because you might be at your 9-5 job while reading it. It is perfectly easy to continue walking the same path while succumbing to powerful forces like depression and oppression and monotony and stability and grind culture and numerous vices. We likely all know a few of those battles personally.
But is there something you want to fight for? “Hadestown” would like to know.