Way down (again) in Hadestown

Hannah Whitley (front left) is Eurydice and J. Antonio Rodriguez is Orpheus (with members of the company) in the Hadestown North American Tour at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco before a run at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts. Photo by T. Charles Erikson

It seems like only yesterday that the strangely magical musical Hadestown was playing at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF. Well, it wasn’t exactly yesterday – more like 15 months ago. But the impression the show leaves is so powerful, it seems that hardly any time has passed since those crazy kids Eurydice and Orpheus had their sad adventure in the bowels of hell, all while singing rousing, beautiful songs.

Hadestown has indeed returned, but only for a minute (five days to be exact), and then it heads south (is there any other direction for Hadestown?) to San Jose for another five-day run.

At the risk of repeating myself, let me direct you to my June 2022 review of the national tour. All of that still holds, but we have a different cast putting different spins on their mortal and immortal characters. The most interesting thing about seeing Hadestown a second time is not necessarily the differences in performance (there’s still abundant talent on stage, from the leads to the ensemble to the on-stage band). It’s reveling in how mesmerizing and enveloping the production itself is.

The way that composer/lyricist/book writer Anaïs Mitchell and director Rachel Chavkin turn storyteller theater into such a moody, pulsating theatrical experience is absolutely wondrous. Mitchell’s New Orleans-infused score is a mood all on its own, with a special shout out to the gorgeous arrangements by Liam Robinson. But even without the striking visuals of Rachel Hauk’s set and Bradley King’s lights, the score stands on its own and could almost as captivating simply as a concert.

But it’s so much more than a concert, and toward the end of Act 1, we get one of the truly great modern musical theater moments with Orpheus’ “Wait for Me” as he attempts to walk into hell to retrieve the love of his life. Lights swing, fog swirls and Orpheus (played by J. Antonio Rodriguez in this tour) wails. The number gets a huge ovation because it’s practically a show unto itself.

The power of ritual and fate pulse deeply in Hadestown, which is why multiple viewings and listenings (the the various recordings) are so rewarding. As the company sings at the end, “It’s an old, old tale from way back when / And we’re gonna sing it / Again and again / We’re gonna sing it again.”

And we’re going to be enthralled again and again.

Hadestown continues through Sept. 17 as part of the BroadwaySF season at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes (including intermission). Visit broadwaysf.com. The show runs from Sept. 26 through Oct. 1 as part of the Broadway San Jose season at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 S. Almaden Blvd., San Jose. Visit broadwaysanjose.com.

To hell and back, with beautiful music

ABOVE: Kimberly Marable is Persephone in the North American Tour of the Tony Award-winning musical Hadestown. BELOW: Levi Kreis (center) is Hermes on stage at the Orpheum Theatre through July 3 as part of the BroadwaySF season. Photos by T. Charles Erickson

How fitting to experience the story of Eurydice and Orpheus in the Orpheum Theatre, which essentially means “house of Orpheus.” That’s where the touring company of the Tony Award-winning musical Hadestown is playing as part of the BroadwaySF season. And while being inside the theater might be a slice of heaven, Market Street after dark is definitely a glimpse into what the underworld might actually be like.

In Hadestown, what we have is an adaptation of Greek mythology (specifically Orpheus and Eurydice and Hades and Persephone) updated and reinvigorated for our fraught times. What began 16 years ago as a grass roots theater project by writer/composer Anaïs Mitchell has grown into a wildly successful Broadway musical with the help of director Rachel Chavkin that addresses climate change, corporate greed, poverty, political reprehensibility and, of course, doomed love.

Because it’s an ancient tale full of hellfire, young love, seasons changing, mature (and rather bitter) love, there’s plenty of fervor in the storytelling to ignite Mitchell’s irresistible, jazzy, folky score, while Chavkin’s staging hews to a storyteller style that involves a narrator (Hermes), a fabulous onstage band, a trio of Fates and a small chorus of dancers/singers.

So, in the end, the show feels less like a musical with fully formed, emotionally connected characters and more like the most enjoyable lecture on Greek mythology you’re likely to see combined with a fantastic concert overflowing with talented performers.

From the rousing opening number, “Road to Hell,” it’s clear that Mitchell and Chavkin are going make this 2 1/2-hour show a mightily entertaining trip through the entanglements of mortals and gods and the forging of hellscapes of our own (and others’) making. As our guide, Levi Kreis as Hermes is nimble, charismatic and vocally assured. He sets the scene, introduces us to the major players and then sticks around to provide insight, comfort and, when necessary, instructions on how to successfully exit hell on foot (those instructions may or may not be followed to the letter).


The central lovers are given full-voiced life by Morgan Siobhan Green as Eurydice, a determined but impoverished (and hungry) wanderer, and Nicholas Barasch as Orpheus, the son of a Muse who is working on a song that will bring order back to an off-kilter world.

When spring arrives (late, thanks climate change), it comes in the form of dazzling Persephone (Kimberly Marable) in a vivid green dress (costumes by Michael Krasov). But spring and summer will be short lived because Persephone is called to return to her husband, Hades (Kevyn Morrow), a baritone in a pinstripe suit with American capitalist aspirations.

The reasons for Eurydice and Orpheus’ sudden plunge into the depths of romance and Eurydice’s even faster decision to give up on life and head into the underworld don’t make a lot of emotional sense, so it’s hard to invest fully in their travails. But Green and Barasch have voices so full of character and power that it’s satisfying to hear them describe their experiences rather than fully feel them.

Aside from a few standout staging moments (like Orpheus’ descent into the underworld, which is so much more effectively staged than his journey back out), one of the most delightful aspects of this production is the band itself, which is featured prominently on Rachel Hauck’s set. Has there ever been a Broadway show in which the trombonist (in this case, the marvelous Audrey Ochoa) feels like a major character? Perhaps this should become a thing.

Hadestown offers big bumps of jubilation and sweetness amid its dark sadness and grim realities. Young love can’t solve all its own problems, but older love can be rekindled at a deeper level. Greed, ego, walls and dominion never equal freedom but always result in doom. And music may not be able to right the world, but as this glorious score amply demonstrates, it can make hell seem pretty heavenly for a couple of hours.

Hadestown continues through July 3 at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $56-$256. Call 888-746.1799 or visit broadwdaysf.com.

Be mindful of the gap: Small Mouth Sounds howls at ACT

Cast of Small Mouth Sounds2_Photo by T Charles Erickson
The cast of Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds, an almost entirely wordless play presented by American Conservatory Theater at The Strand Theater, includes (clockwise from left) Ben Beckley, Brenna Palughi, Connor Barrett, Edward Chin-Lyn, Socorro Santiago and Cherene Snow. Below: Six urbanites experience the awkward tension of a silent meditation retreat. Photos by T. Charles Erickson

In the predominantly wordless play Small Mouth Sounds, now at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater, it was a seemingly shambolic monologue that struck like a bolt of theatrical lightning.

The genius of Bess Wohl’s play, which is taking a victory lap around the country after its success off Broadway, is the way she and director Rachel Chavkin (late of Broadway’s Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812) sculpt the silence and the storytelling into beats and rests and crescendos like conductors offering a symphony on the noise and connect/disconnect of modern life. There’s so little that’s actually said that every actual word, every sigh or grunt (or other small mouth sound) tells us something about a character’s emotional state or relationship with another character or with life in general.

This is a play about discovery, and because it’s such a unique experience to spend time in the relative quiet of mostly wordless storytelling, it’s best not to know too much. But do know this: Wohl and Chavkin, working with set designer Laura Jellinek, lighting designer Mike Inwood and sound designer Stowe Nelson have everything so firmly under control that you can just relax and trust that this will be a rewarding experience – warm, funny and moving.

The nice thing about Wohl’s premise – six urbanites descend on a forest retreat center for five days of silent meditation under the tutelage of heard-not-seen guru (Orville Mendoza) – is that everyone could easily come off as a stereotypical joke of a spiritually starved/evolved human giving in to New Age hooey. But as with most details here, Wohl is more interested in actual, flawed humans than in tired sketches.

Cast of Small Mouth Sounds3_Photo by T Charles Erickson

The six retreaters all feel like people we know (or think we do), and by the end of the play’s 100 minutes, we care about them because we’re invested in their quest to find answers to help them change something about their lives. That something in most of the cases here, is pain caused by death, disease, catastrophic luck, heartbreak, overweening ego. You know, the usual.

Mostly the characters abide by the rule of silence, but several of them – Cherene Snow as Judy and Brenna Palughi as Alicia – have a hard time unplugging from the digital world and just need to do one more thing on the iPad or make one more desperate call. Another great thing about the play (and Jellinke’s set) is that we can go from the meditation room to the bear-infested forest (featuring nature projections by video designer Andrew Schneider) to the sleeping quarters, where in frames of light, we watch the intimate rituals of getting ready for sleep and dealing with another person in that space. For roomies Ned (Ben Beckley), a serious all-in kind of guy, and Rodney (Edward Chin-Lyn), a celebrity yoga guru, it’s a decidedly uncomfortable space but fascinating to watch how much we get to know about these men simply by watching them interact wordlessly (and in passive and not-so-passive aggressive ways).

Also serious about making the most of her retreat are Joan (Socorro Santiago), whose fragile optimism seems destined to shatter, and Jan (Connor Barrett), a quirky guy who can’t seem to get enough sleep but is also capable of small but powerful acts of kindness.

Amid all the awkwardness and failed attempts at spiritual evolution, we get moments of genuine sadness (a kind of grief with the force of a locomotive) and silliness (skinny-dipping anyone?), all of it leading to – what? – the end of the retreat, certainly. But like the retreaters, we hope for something more than simply an ending: connection, hope or, if we’re really lucky, transcendence. Amazingly, Small Mouth Sounds offers some of all that.

But that lightning-bolt monologue is the thing that super-charges the play because, from a place of inner peace-seeking and spoofing, it seriously asks if, in a time of tumult and trouble, we should really be seeking inner peace. Maybe we should be riled up and angry and acting on those feelings. Maybe, amid the silence, we can use our words to make outer change as well as inner.

[bonus interview]
I talked with playwright Bess Wohl for a feature in the San Francisco Examiner. Read it here.

Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds continues through Dec. 10 at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $14-$90. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.