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Hadestown review – thrilling songs from an American underworld

<span>Well-honed musical machine … Hadestown, starring Dónal Finn (centre), at the Lyric theatre, London.</span><span>Photograph: Marc Brenner</span>
Well-honed musical machine … Hadestown, starring Dónal Finn (centre), at the Lyric theatre, London.Photograph: Marc Brenner

This odyssey through the underworld, told with deep-voiced folk and jazz songs, was staged in Britain in 2018 and since then has had a storming run on Broadway. But the show began as a DIY community project in Vermont almost 20 years ago. Extraordinarily, it is not just a well-honed musical machine but retains a tremendous soul and offbeat spirit.

Its creator, singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, splices the myth of Persephone’s abduction by Hades with Eurydice and Orpheus’s doomed love story. Orpheus is a penniless musician who works on his thin, unfinished tunes while Eurydice looks for firewood and food in a vaguely Great Depression-era landscape. “Is this always what he does?” she wonders, while he – fey, distracted and strumming on his guitar – looks as if he deserves to lose the love of his life.

It takes a while for the dark magic to kick in. As the narrator, Hermes, Melanie La Barrie is full of swagger and has a stupendous voice yet the story is formless, with one song after another and little forward momentum. The alchemy is created quietly and somewhere in the first act you find yourself hooked.

Rachel Chavkin’s production takes on a fabulous sense of motion from here on but there is stillness, too, which allows the emotions around the central, complicated romances to rise. A revolve and a staircase on Rachel Hauck’s saloon bar stage create the sense of a jazz club which cracks open with a formidable rumble to reveal the underworld while David Neumann’s choreography is original and engaging.

The music – modern American folk with New Orleans-inspired jazz – features the returning sound of a steam train, carrying suggestions of a fateful journey, and is thrillingly created by a band sitting on both sides of the stage.

Mitchell’s book is barely there, the dialogue itself half sung. Her songs do all the talking from the first, Road to Hell, to the foot-stomping Way Down Hadestown, the romantic Wait for Me and the menacing Hey, Little Songbird, when the predatory Hades finds Eurydice has wandered into an underworld of enslaved people.

Related: Hadestown: how Anaïs Mitchell’s lo-fi hit became a sensational musical

There is no weak link in the cast, who have spine-tingling voices that become thunderous in chorus. As Hades, Zachary James sounds like a mix between Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen, hitting staggering low notes in Why We Build the Wall – a duet that takes on shades of Donald Trump’s hostile approach to outsiders. He has an imposing stage presence, too, devilish in a long leather coat and black pin-stripes.

As Orpheus, Dónal Finn combines grating falsetto with a lovely lilting voice as he braves the underworld. Grace Hodgett Young brings a clear-eyed strength to Eurydice, Gloria Onitiri exudes charisma as Persephone, and the three Fates (Bella Brown, Madeline Charlemagne and Allie Daniel) are mischievous and magnificent.

Every scene becomes a set piece: big, beautiful and emotionally blasting. It is ultimately not about good over evil, tragedy v happy endings or the artist v the work machine of the underworld, but the value of telling stories, in spite of knowing their ending. This is one of the best West End musicals around.

• At the Lyric theatre, London, until 22 December.