André De Shields as Hermes in “Hadestown,” a role that earned him a Tony for best actor in a featured role in a musical (photo by Matthew Murphy)
As Theater Reopen, “Hadestown” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” Are Not to Be Missed
Broadway suffered an unprecedented blow in 2020 with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The theater district — a highlight of New York’s cultural scene — was forced to shut down, leaving actors and offstage talent with no place to work. And that meant an abrupt change in plans for tourists hoping to experience the bright lights and breathtaking plays and musicals that have made the entertainment destination famous.
But in the aftermath of a year and a half in the dark, Broadway is poised for a comeback. Theaters have reopened as hit shows and new productions compete for enthusiastic crowds. Adjustments have been implemented in the interest of health and safety, such as requiring theatergoers to wear face masks and provide proof of either vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test. And if the scarcity of empty seats at some of the more popular shows is any indication,
it’s a concession that most folks don’t seem to mind.
“Hadestown” is a fantastically staged retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.
That’s certainly true of the musical “Hadestown” and the play “To Kill a Mockingbird” — two of the hottest tickets on Broadway, playing respectively at the Walter Kerr Theatre and the Shubert Theatre. In its own way, each show represents the theater district at its best and most ambitious. And each owes its success as much to its impressive stars as to its imaginative storytelling.
With a book, music and lyrics by Anais Mitchell and directed by Rachel Chavkin, “Hadestown” is a fantastically staged retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The show won eight Tony Awards, including for best musical and best original score, and would appear to once again be settled in
for a long run.
The core of the story is the doomed romance between Orpheus and Eurydice, played by Reeve Carvey and Eva Noblezada, respectively. But “Hadestown” benefits immeasurably from the performances of André De Shields as Hermes, a Greek god, and Amber Gray as Persephone, queen of the underworld.
De Shields, a Broadway legend, balances grace and gravitas as the audience’s guide to Hell. Quite deservedly, his exuberant interpretation of Hermes earned him a Tony for best actor in a featured role in a musical. And he’s truly the soul of the show.
That said, Gray’s portrayal of Persephone is nothing short of phenomenal. She’s a singing, dancing whirlwind — and whenever she’s at the center of the action, all else fades into the background. Together, De Shields and Gray contribute mightily to rendering “Hadestown” a must-see experience.
In its style and sensibility, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” directed by Bartlett Sher from a script by Aaron Sorkin, is a million miles from “Hadestown.” About the only thing that the shows have in common is their sheer theatricality — and their ability to mesmerize theatergoers. Sorkin has put a fresh spin on Harper Lee’s tale of racial injustice in a Southern town.
Sorkin brings a story that has often been viewed as overly sentimental into the 21st century — lending it a timeliness that’s very much in sync with an America coping with the challenges and complexities of race.
His version of “Mockingbird,” which earned a wide and enduring readership as a 1960 novel and inspired a beloved 1962 film starring Gregory Peck, shifts the emphasis from narrator Scout — a young girl coming of age — to the trial of Tom Robinson, a Black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. In doing so, Sorkin brings a story that has often been viewed as overly sentimental into the 21st century — lending it a timeliness that’s very much in sync with an America coping with the challenges and complexities of race.
Jeff Daniels puts his own stamp on the role of iconic lawyer and ideal parent Atticus Finch, eschewing Peck’s stoicism in favor of a more introspective approach (Greg Kinnear has been slated to take over the role in January). And the production is distinguished by choices that proved to be inspired: casting not children but adults as Scout (played by Celia Keenan-Bolger), her brother Jem (Hunter Parrish) and their friend Dill (Noah Robbins) and enhancing the presence of African American characters Robinson (Michael Braugher), whose fate lies in Finch’s hands, and Calpurnia (Portia), the Finch family’s housekeeper.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” is the rare serious play to become a Broadway smash. And its commercial viability may encourage theater producers to take more risks. That certainly seemed to be the case with the docudrama “Is This a Room,” which had an unlikely but critically acclaimed run at Broadway’s Lyceum Theater after productions Off and Off-Off Broadway. In an unusual arrangement, the play shared the Lyceum stage and alternated performances with another docudrama, “Dana H.”
“Is This a Room” is a verbatim reenactment of whistleblower Reality Winner’s 2017 interrogation by FBI agents. Conceived and directed by Tina Satter, the 65-minute, four-person play was at once thrilling and provocative, and boasted a terrific performance from Emily Davis as the National Security Agency contractor who was prosecuted for leaking classified information. (Winner was released from prison in June.)
Although the play closed earlier than originally planned, it may signal a sea change in what theatergoers can expect on a Broadway stage — and a new beginning for a cultural oasis that was in danger of drying up.