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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Originality fuels riveting ‘Hadestown’ in Appleton

Critic At Large

Fox Cities Performing Arts Center

Show programs. (Warren Gerds)

APPLETON, Wis. (WFRV) – Head-in-the-clouds Orpheus falls in love at first sight with Eurydice. The more wary Eurydice takes a few minutes, but soon they’re all set for everlasting love. Eurydice also catches the eye of Hades, the big man in town whose town happens to be underground. Whatever Hades wants, Hades gets. Orpheus puts up a fight with his disarming weapon – song.

That is only a hint of what happens in “Hadestown,” a league-of-its-own musical that is playing for seven more performances to Dec. 19 in Thrivent Financial Hall of Fox Cities Performing Arts Center.

The basis for the show is 2,000-something years old – a Greek tragedy, an oldie but goodie that flies in the face of all’s well that ends well, yet endures.

“It’s a sad song that we keep singing even so,” the narrator tells the audience.

Tuesday night, the audience often was held in that magical wrap of theater rapture – silence. “Hadestown” is so different. And interesting. And so well done. Captivating.

Creative brilliance abounds. Anaïs Mitchell achieves the trifecta – book, music and lyrics. Her vision is fulfilled with assists of the eyes of director Rachel Chavkin and choreographer David Neumann and ear of Liam Robinson as vocal arranger. (Liam Robinson grew up in Green Bay; see a feature story about him at the end of this review; he performs in the current Broadway production of “Hadestown”).

“Hadestown” won the 2019 Tony Award for Best Musical. This is just me: Sometimes I see a Tony winner and think, “Okay.” With this Tony winner, my thought is, “Of course.”

An age-old story that calls on a certain intellect to grasp is told with broadened sensibilities in the wheelhouse of a modern audience.

This and that from the experience:

+ The stage is home for the orchestra with the exception of the drummer. Some actors also play an instrument. Much of the stage is a half-circle with two levels. In the focal area on the floor are three circles – the outer one stable, the next one in rotate-able and the interior stable. The space is sometimes a railroad station with the next stop being the end of the line, Hadestown. Sometimes it is a factory with workers toiling mightily. Once it is the place for workers to beat up Orpheus – a terrific thrashing all choreographed in a case of violence meets art.

+ Orpheus is a piece of work – as a character and as a performance role. The character has a gift for music and a way with words, with a bit of magic slipped in. His abilities are elevated… not of the regular world. For “Hadestown,” Orpheus must sing, play guitar, and dance – none of those elements being in “normal” ways. Most distinctive is the voicing. Often called for is falsetto, which can be used in ways either charming, as in his idyllic love song, or chilling, as in his putting Hades’ feet to the coals. Nicholas Barasch scores on all points.

+ All around this cast is vibrant. Others are Morgan Siobhan Green as the runaway Eurydice of alluring radiance; Kevyn Morrow as the lurky, snarky, deep-voiced Hades; Shea Renne (Tuesday) as the torn Persephone, wintertime love of Hades and summertime love of fun and games and drink; Belén Moyano, Bex Odoriso and Alex Lugo (Tuesday) as the Fates, always tossing their oh-so-knowing two cents in, sometimes in three-part harmony; Will Mann (Tuesday) as Hermes who takes command of the story and often the stage as narrator/participant from the first word, “I;” and the do-all Workers Chorus of singers/dancers/actors… in general, toilers. This is a great show of Anaïs Mitchell, and they make this production be so.

+ The house of Hades seems to give a hint of a key music style in “Hadestown.” Outside is a railing that leads down a winding stairway – akin to the curly-cue cast iron balconies found in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Some of the music is jazz – bluesy and sometimes boisterous – that is part of the New Orleans scene. Hermes sings that way, too. But there’s so much more – the way Eurydice embraces sounds, how Persephone expresses dilemmas and the slow, methodical emphasis Orpheus and Hades employ to get points across. The artistry is wide ranging.

+ Much of what happens is a downer. The Workers’ life is gritty, relentless and soul-busting. The same with Persephone’s turn-on, turn-off morality, Hades’ boss’s grip on lives and Orpheus’ blind attracting to “music first.” Other elements factor into life today. The Orpheus story, as old as it is, resonates today.

+ As dark as it is, “Hadestown” does not toss in cheap profanities. The controlling force of Hades is profane enough.

+ Many people probably kind of/sort of know the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Many probably come into “Hadestown” not knowing what to expect – “That’s an odd name for a musical. Sounds like a scorching rock show that’s hellishly loud.” In the theater, the knowing happens. “Hadestown” is music theater taken to a dynamic height… and Orpheus still looks back.

***

Running time: Two hours, 35 minutes

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 15-17; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 18; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Dec. 19

Info: foxcitiespac.com

Note: Masks are required in the center due to COVID-19 considerations.

Creative: Book, music, lyrics – Anaïs Mitchell; developer/director – Rachel Chavkin; musical supervisor and vocal arrangements – Liam Robinson; choreographer – David Neumann; scenic design – Rachel Hauck; costume design – Michael Krass; lighting design – Bradley King; co-sound design – Nevin Steinberg, Jessica Paz; arrangements and orchestrations – Michael Chorney, Todd Sickafoose; music director – Cody Owen Stine; dramaturg – Ken Cerniglia; music coordinator – David Lai; hair design – Jennifer Mullins; production stage manager – Paige Grant; associate choreographer – Katie Rose McLaughlin

Cast:

Orpheus – Nicholas Barasch

Eurydice – Morgan Siobhan Green

Persephone – Shea Renne (Dec. 14)/Kimberly Marable

Hades – Kevyn Morrow

Hermes – Will Mann (Levi Kreis scheduled to be out all week)

Fates – Belén Moyano, Bex Odorisio, Alex Lugo (Dec. 14)/Shea Renne

Workers Chorus – Lindsey Hailes, Chibueze Ihuoma, Will Mann(except this week), Sydney Parra, Jamari Johnson Williams

Orchestra: Conductor/piano – Cody Owen Stine; cello/assistant conductor – Jacob Yates; violin – Maria Im; guitar – Michiko Egger; trombone/glockenspiel – Audrey Ochoa; double bass – Calvin Jones; drums/percussion – Anthony Ty Johnson

***

Musical selections

Act I

“Road to Hell I” – Hermes, Company

“Any Way the Wind Blows” – Eurydice, Fates

“Come Home with Me” – Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes, Workers

“Wedding Song” – Eurydice, Orpheus, Workers

“Epic I” – Orpheus, Hermes

“Livin’ It Up on Top” – Persephone, Hermes, Orpheus, Company

“All I’ve Ever Known” – Eurydice, Orpheus

“Way Down Hadestown” – Company

“A Gathering Storm” – Hermes, Orpheus, Eurydice, Fates

“Epic II” – Orpheus

“Chant” – Company

“Hey, Little Songbird” – Hades, Eurydice

“When the Chips are Down” – Fates, Eurydice

“Gone, I’m Gone” – Eurydice, Fates

“Wait for Me” – Hermes, Orpheus, Fates, Workers

“Why We Build the Wall” – Hades, Company

Act II

“Our Lady of the Underground” – Persephone

“Way Down Hadestown” (Reprise) – Hermes, Fates, Eurydice, Workers

“Flowers” – Eurydice

“Come Home With Me” (Reprise) – Orpheus, Eurydice

“Papers” – Hades, Company

“Nothing Changes” – Fates

“If It’s True” – Orpheus, Hermes, Workers

“How Long?” – Persephone, Hades

“Chant” (Reprise) – Company

“Epic III” – Orpheus, Company

“Promises” – Eurydice, Orpheus

“Word to the Wise” – Fates

“His Kiss, The Riot” – Hades

“Wait for Me” (Reprise) – Hermes, Company

“Doubt Comes In” – Orpheus, Eurydice, Fates, Workers

“Road to Hell” (Reprise) – Hermes

Curtain Call: “I Raise My Cup” – Persephone

***

THE VENUE: Thrivent Financial Hall is the main theater of Fox Cities Performing Arts Center on College Avenue in downtown Appleton. The capacity is 2,072. The seating area is in the shape of a horse shoe, with three balconies following the shape. The stage is 60 feet across and 40 feet high. The décor features Veneciano plaster walls with dark-stained cherry wood. In the oval dome ceiling is a 65-foot-long chandelier that is reminiscent of the Art Deco era. The design includes ruby inserts in the opaque cream-colored glass. Flowing along the walls up to the chandelier are parallel metal pipes as if of a musical instrument. Flat walls in the front third of the hall are salmon colored, while red pleated theatrical curtains dominate the rest of the side walls. The white acoustic wing over the stage looks like the underside of a sci-fi spacecraft. The lobby area consists of lots of geometrics, glass and, on the ground level, a feeling of openness and spaciousness. The exterior of the gray building features gentle curves. A large glass skylight is reminiscent of a human eye.

THE NAME: Thrivent Financial has roots in a life insurance company that was chartered in 1902 as Aid Association for Lutherans, based in Appleton. The corporate name has been Thrivent since 2002.

***

Feature article on Liam Robinson from July 7, 2019:

By Warren Gerds, WFRV-TV Critic at Large:

Whatever image you have of someone in the best musical on a Broadway is, it’s different in reality.

And one of the most different realities is that of Liam Robinson, whose path in life includes significant formative time in Green Bay.

AND, Liam Robinson makes it sound like The Great White Way is a way station in his plans.

His true passion: The life of a troubadour. He writes and performs with Jean Rohe in their Americana duo, Robinson & Rohe.

Troubabourin’ is on hold for the time being.

Liam Robinson is music director, sings and plays piano and accordion in “Hadestown,” which recently won a hefty eight Tony Awards.

Liam Robinson is more than in the show. He helped make it as part of the creative team, writing the vocal arrangements.

“Hadestown” taps into the ancient Grecian myth about hell and the romance of Orpheus and Eurydice – don’t look back, Orpheus! – so Liam Robinson got a chance to be part of molding new shapes on something ageless.

Not bad for a 2001 graduate of Green Bay Preble High School.

“It’s a fun challenge,” Liam Robinson said of writing for those important voices in a Greek tragedy, the know-it-all haunting chorus.

Liam Robinson is the son of Jane Blaumeiser and Brock Robinson, today residents of Duluth, Minn.

In a 2011 interview, Liam Robinson’s mother said he is basically a musician first.

That started with classical piano lessons.

“I wasn’t very good and always just wanted to be improvising,” Liam Robinson told me in 2011. “I switched to studying jazz with Christine Salerno through middle and high school. She really encouraged my compositional and improvisational voice.”

Salerno continues to teach and perform, notably with her Brazilian-flavored ZIJI.

Robinson attended the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire before studying at the Manhattan School of Music.

According to a feature story, “The Making of ‘Hadestown’” by New York Theatre Workshop, “Hadestown” author Anaïs Mitchell chose Liam Robinson for his versatility in his theatrical experience of being in “War Horse” on Broadway for a year and his grounding in traditional folk music.

Anaïs Mitchell won the Tony Award for Best Original Score.

Liam Robinson’s first involvement in the project was in 2015. The long process included stages of development in New York, Canada and London.

“One of the orchestrators, Todd Sickafoose, was someone who I worked with,” Laim Robinson said in a telephone interview from New York. “My sweetheart and frequent collaborator, Jean Rohe, and I were working at producing her record, and we contacted Todd about mixing it, and we became friends and hit it off. Two or three years later, he recommended me for the music director job on ‘Hadestown’ as it was moving into an Off-Broadway production in New York City at the New York Theatre Workshop. They were looking for a music director, and they weren’t quite finding the right fit with the kind of artistic goal with musical theater people. I come primarily from the music world and songwriting world, and that seemed to work.”

Todd Sickafoose shares a Tony Award with Michael Chorney for Best Orchestrations for “Hadestown.”

As for the vocal arrangements, Liam Robinson said, “The piece has more group singing that most pieces of musical theater. There are five principals with soloist voices, and then there’s a trio of women who are the Fates, and so their stuff is always in trio… And then there is a group of five who served as a chorus who are called the Workers (and more)…

“Whenever new material would be developed, Anais was just constant throughout the process. Ansis is very much a generative artist. She’s a re-writer. She has changed quite a bit in the last three years, mostly in terms of generating new stuff.

“So it would always be a process, taking the melody and text and then arranging it for whatever grouping that needed to be arranged for within the ensemble. There was quite a bit of divided choral parts, from three to six divisions of choral singing. That does happen in other musical theater pieces, but it might be a rare moment when that occurs. But this is scattered throughout the piece with a lot participation, singing on the choruses of songs, backing up a solo. It’s a big sound, the sound of everybody singing.”

This might sound like the career path for someone on a superhighway. But Liam Robinson’s path looks like something hand drawn by the guy you ask directions of at a roadside stand who says under his breath, “You can’t get there from here.” The path is not what Liam Robinson envisioned when he went to New York.

“I really didn’t know,” Liam Robinson said.

“I was still in school then. I went to Eau Claire for a couple years. A lot of people were studying education there. It’s a really good school for people studying to be band teachers. I knew that’s not where I was headed.

“When we got to New York, I was still searching for what I wanted, and I ended up at the Manhattan School of Music studying classical composition. I was kind of on a long road to a bachelor’s degree, but I found a good fit there and just got skills that I wanted in terms of orchestration and counterpoint – just some good hard skills. I wasn’t going to be a concert composer, although I’ve done that.

“It’s been, over the years, just a piecing together a lot of disparate musical skills and then finding the situations in which a lot of those disparate skills come to bear. I found they keep coming back around, like feeling a situation in which I’m most useful.

“For example, working in the theater brings a lot of different skills to bear in terms of leadership, in terms of musicianship.

“Whatever the situation is, whether it is producing records or working in the theater, I find it’s about bringing a whole bunch of different skills to bear.”

Liam Robinson said he has a commitment to “Hadestown,” performing and training new arrivals and the sort, for the immediate future. But then it’s back to the guy at the roadside stand to draw the map.

“I’m interested in collaboration,” Liam Robinson said. “I’m certainly not a career music theater director. It’s not my path. I don’t feel I need to keep taking that work. It really depends on the material. I would do it if it was something that I love, but it’s not something I feel I need to just keep doing for its own sake. There is plenty of musical theater that doesn’t float my boat.”

High on his mind is recording project for Robinson & Rohe.

“We’re in the early stages,” Liam Robinson said. “We have a lot of new writing. As Robinson and Rohe, we did some serious writing time last year, knowing that I would be tied up for part of this year. We wanted to get the foundation laid so we would be ready.

“We’ve done a lot of touring. Jean Rohe and I both write for the project. In the past two years, we’ve been on the road quite a bit. Our last album is called ‘Hunger.’ We toured that record for about a year and a half when that phase wrapped up.

“In a way, having a job in New York City provides me a home base to regroup, to get back into recording and writing and rehearsing and hoping that some time next year we put out a new record and we’ll get back out on the road.

“Definitely one of my passions is of having a troubadour life, which is different than the Broadway life.”

The guy at the roadside stand may be sketching maps to coffeehouses and regional folk festivals and small rooms. “The folk world has a structure that is good for us,” Liam Robinson said.

Robinson & Rohe songs have been on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Simply Folk” a few times.

“I have friends all over Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan, so they are favorite places to get back to, and I would make a point to get back to Green Bay,” Liam Robinson said.

Jean Rohe is essential.

“It’s always good to have partnership,” Liam Robinson said. “Jean’s a long-time collaborator. I’ve produced records with her and for her. She has her own band that goes under her name that plays really great stuff. That’s how I met Todd Sickafoose, who brought me into the fold of ‘Hadestown.’ Jean’s a close companion and my sweetheart and my editor and all those things.”

Meantime, there’s “Hadestown,” where folks are feeling mighty good these days.

“There was a lot of good will around the show (going into the Tonys), but we didn’t count our chickens before they hatched,” Liam Robinson said. “It’s also not the end-all. I’m glad that it happened, but we liked what we did. Awards are validating, but they’re not everything.”

And they do make nice stars on hand-drawn career maps.

Copyright 2022 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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