Reeve Carney, the best thing to come out of Bono and the Edge's Spiderman musical, plays a blinder in this Broadway musical with poetically examined themes from climate change to Greek myth
Eight years ago a blockbuster show came to Broadway with some very powerful Irish names behind it: Bono and the Edge of U2.
Carney is the New York-based singer and performer Bono and the Edge handpicked to play the title character in their ill-fated show.
Carney comes from an Irish American acting dynasty (his great uncle was Oscar winner Art Carney) and this month he's back on Broadway in a triumphant new show called Hadestown.
From his first moment on stage, he banishes all memory of his turn in the Spiderman suit. Hadestown has taken the long road to Broadway, having first stepped out in 2016 as the first try musical version of already cult-hit folk album released in 2010. I know, that's quite a back story.
What matters is that the show that has emerged, through trial and error, is so good now that it easily ranks in the top three musicals I have seen in this decade. The songs are deceptively simple but all the more powerful for that, and the theme, which is about the fate of love, is as old as humanity.
The story begins on the outskirts of hell, or as the Greeks called the afterworld, Hades. Here at the last stop before the world to come young Orpheus spends his days as a slightly touched young poet with a voice so beguiling that it can stop you in your tracks (quite literally as it happens, Carney can channel Jeff Buckley like vocal stylings that electrify the audience throughout).
Into this town located on the last stop between life and the afterlife comes the shivering, half-starved figure of Eurydice. It is – for Orpheus at least – love at first sight. But Eurydice has other things on her mind, like finding somewhere to stay and something to eat, so at first, she's almost oblivious to the interest he's taking in her.
Poetry is fine insofar as it goes, but around Hadestown that's not too far, the show tells us. Added to this are the recent dramatic changes in the weather, changes that makes winter too long and summer too hot, upsetting the natural order and making life harder for all.
The show's themes are as contemporary as climate change and also as old as the Greek myths on which they are based, in other words. What do we owe to others, what do we owe to ourselves, and must they always be in conflict, the show asks?
Added to that are the complications that arise for gods and mortals alike because the twin gods Hades and Persephone, guardians of the summer and winter, have forgotten how to ease the earth into autumn and spring.
As New Yorkers can attest, these days it's just one or the other with no ballast between them. One day you're shivering and the next you're sweltering, and they both seem to endure much too long.
And if the metaphors for how we live now still escape you, act one concludes with an electrifying takedown of the build the wall rhetoric currently poisoning our national politics and forcing our country into the kind of sour defensive crouch that we see everywhere around us these days.
Director Anais Mitchell has had the inspired idea of creating a cabaret in hell and then quietly suggesting it's the perfect illustration of how we live now. Up above the two-tiered stage, the powerful are living it up in their exclusive world we will never see whilst down below the majority just have to suck it up and work without ceasing.
So far so familiar, but then Hadestown deepens things considerably with its dark meditation on the private hells we actually create for ourselves through doubt, selfishness, anger, greed and so on.
What breaks through all the heartbreak and faithlessness onstage is the pure heart of Orpheus, and Carney's beautiful singing voice reminds the characters onstage of who they used to be before all that stuff happened that dimmed their shine. His gift is hope and hope is the most destabilizing of all the political elements.
Who would you be if you could be your best self, Hadestown asks? What would the world be like if we all worked together for the benefit of all? It can seem like a dream in these dark days, but it's a dream worth nurturing, Hadestown reminds us.
* Hadestown is playing at the Walter Kerr Theater. Call 1-800-Broadway.