“Hadestown” reclaims the Opera House for musical theater in a show with a dreamy, New Orleans beat, a stylishly stylized directorial concept and some thinness of characters: The musical, which had its official Washington opening Friday, is a bluesy, snazzy-looking tribute to the enduring power of ancient tales. It’s a dazzling diversion rather than a great musical, the difference residing in its underwhelming assault on the gut. You come away from composer-lyricist Anaïs Mitchell’s handiwork with admiration for the melodies and the movement, even if you’re emotionally underserved.
Mind you, the production, stunningly conjured by director Rachel Chavkin, set designer Rachel Hauck and costume designer Michael Krass, plays much more satisfyingly than it did during the Trump era, when it debuted on Broadway. This modern retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus — who travels to hell to retrieve his beloved Eurydice — seemed too much like agitprop in 2019. This was particularly apparent at the close of Act 1, when Hades, lord of the underworld, leads the call-and-response number “Why We Build the Wall”: “We build the wall to keep us free,” the ensemble chants, which an administration ago came across as cloyingly ideological satire.
Distanced from that political context, the song — which Mitchell wrote before all the Mexico-will-pay-for-the-wall baloney — now is allowed to function simply as a good first-act finale and reliable earworm. David Neumann’s muscular choreography, set to the emphatic beat of a seven-member band conducted by pianist Cody Owen Stine, helps potently in maintaining the evening’s seductive vibe. I challenge you to try forgetting the hypnotic refrain of the grunting, arm-pumping workers on Hauck’s turntable set: “Keep your head, keep your head low, oh you gotta keep your head low.”
The parable Mitchell constructs actually does have broader philosophical underpinnings: It seems intended to evoke the oppressiveness of economic hierarchies. The hell depicted in “Hadestown” is a Rust Belt city in oblivion, where proletarian recruits trade perpetual work in the mines and pits for Hades’s paternalism and the security of eternal life. Personal freedom and the liberating properties of art are embodied by the youthful Orpheus, played here in supple voice and magnetic personality by Nicholas Barasch, who a few years ago portrayed Arpad, the callow delivery boy, in the Laura Benanti-led revival of “She Loves Me” on Broadway.
His Eurydice is a persuasively questing Morgan Siobhan Green, although “Hadestown” makes her choice to depart our reality for the cold comforts of the superhot underworld confoundingly enigmatic. The gap deprives us somewhat of our own quest, to bond with her. Is it for the promise of a square meal that she takes so drastic a step, when she’s just found a guy she likes?
The touring version of the musical is in many ways a confidently mounted facsimile of the Broadway original that restarted last month. Technically, one of the more gratifying elements is the sharpness of the amplification: The Opera House has in years past been an acoustic graveyard; it’s where lyrics go to die. So, props to the road company and its sound department, headed by co-designers Nevin Steinberg and Jessica Paz.
A crucial modification of the nightclub-like set, though, does damage to the narrative. Instead of hydraulics in the floor that permit characters to descend into hell, the journey is made via a compartment upstage that opens and closes like a restaurant dumbwaiter. In comparison to the Broadway version, when you watch the musical’s one truly anguishing moment — the final parting of Orpheus and Eurydice as fate swallows her up like quicksand — the effect feels diminished. Doubtless the alteration is a concession to the practicalities of a tour. Still, Eurydice boarding a freight elevator and imagining a voice announcing, “Hell, 10 flights down!” is a less compelling denouement.
The Hades of Kevyn Morrow, outfitted like a demonic mentor on “Shark Tank,” and the sequined Persephone of Kimberly Marable form a sultry second couple, and Marable is on fire in her second-act opener, “Our Lady of the Underground.” The omnipresent commentary of the decorous, meddling Fates — Belén Moyano, Bex Odorisio and Shea Renne — provides some needed cynical intervention. And Kreis, who puts one in mind of a slick rocker version of Harry Connick Jr., presides with vocal authority and a welcome, almost comic belief in his own coolness.
Neumann admirably marshals the skills of those tireless worker-dancers; it’s collective polish that ensures a tour like “Hadestown” radiates with a Broadway sheen. “Wait for me!” Barasch’s Orpheus sings out memorably, in a clarion tenor. We did. We’re glad the wait is over.
Hadestown, music, lyrics and book by Anaïs Mitchell. Directed by Rachel Chavkin. Choreography, David Neumann; lighting, Bradley King; arrangements and orchestrations, Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose; music supervision, Liam Robinson. With Lindsey Hailes, Chibueze Ihuoma, Will Mann, Sydney Parra, Jamari Johnson Williams. About 2½ hours. $45-$175. Through Oct. 31 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org.