Greetings From Hell: The devil is in the details in the University of Michigan’s "Orpheus in the Underworld"
The classic Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is everywhere in the performing arts right now. The play Eurydice, written by award-winning playwright Sarah Ruhl, is being performed on stages all over the U.S. and was adapted into an opera by the same name, and the Broadway smash hit musical Hadestown, which won eight Tony awards including Best Musical, is still going strong in New York City, has a thriving national tour, and is opening on the West End in 2024.
But before all of that, French composer Jaques Offenbach created Orphée Aux Enfers, or Orpheus in the Underworld, in 1858, and U-M's Department of Voice has put a whole new twist on it. (I went to the Thursday evening performance, and the actors I mention here may be different than those seen by others due to the double casting of the lead roles.)
U-M’s production starts in the suburbs of America, set in the late 1950s. Orpheus (Alexander Nick) and Eurydice (Goitsemang Lehobye) are married to one another … but not happily. Orpheus, who is a musician, is having an affair with the nearby shepherdess while Eurydice is sleeping with the local farmhand, Aristée (Spencer VanDellen). Orpheus decides to set a trap for his wife with a venomous snake and she passes. Aristée reveals himself to be Pluto—the King of the Underworld—and he takes a relieved Eurydice away. Orpheus, who is ecstatic that his wife is dead, is confronted by Public Opinion (Diayao Zhong), who insists he tries to save his wife.
Meanwhile, at a mansion in Cape Cod, Diana (Pelagia Pamel) is annoyed and angry at her dad, Jupiter (Amante Pando Girard), because he turned her date into a stag. Pluto claims to have done it to protect her reputation but the gods find it hypocritical considering he has cheated on his wife Juno (Hannah Yan) multiple times. The gods start to revolt and protest his rule, but Orpheus and Public Opinion show up and interrupt the coup. Orpheus begrudgingly asks Jupiter for his help to get Eurydice back; he agrees and they all head to Las Vegas.
At the Sands Hotel in Vegas, Eurydice is being held captive by Pluto but has the company of her drunk butler John Styx (Loren Reash-Henz). Jupiter, now disguised as a gold fly, sneaks into Eurydice’s room. He reveals himself to her and says he will help her, singing a love song with her, and it’s clear he wants her for himself.
Down in the VIP lounge of the Sands, the gods have arrived and are partying. It’s a chaotic time with Elvis Presley (Benjamin Isyk) interrupting Jupiter’s plan, a full can-can dance, and Pluto also getting in Jupiter’s way. Orpheus and Public Opinion arrive to try and save Eurydice but Jupiter throws a lightning bolt at them and when Orpheus looks back at Eurydice, she vanishes.
In this crazy ending, Jupiter says he's staying in Vegas, Pluto deserts Eurydice, Orpheus is officially free, and Eurydice runs off with Elvis. It is a fresh twist on this classic Greek myth.
The opera sets at U-M are always exemplary, and Kevin Judge’s set design for this show is no different. The numerous drops are stunning and each set is bigger and better than the last. Sarah M. Oliver’s costumes are perfectly period, and the unique headpieces for the gods are whimsical and visually beautiful.
Alexander Nick is wonderful as a dorky and irritated Orpheus. His body language and facial expressions are larger than life, and his singing is wonderful. Nick's asides to the audience, where he reveals his true emotions about Eurydice, are some of my favorites.
VanDellen as Pluto is comedic and playful to the max. He is charming and you can’t help but follow him on stage, even when he’s in the middle of the crowd in the large ensemble numbers.
Ultimately, the chorus elevates this show to another level. Each member of the ensemble is clear with their personality and characteristics, which adds a lot of fun to the show. The can-can dance is a true show-stopper but with a cast like this, the whole show is brilliant from start to finish.
Marley Boone is a theater professional who has been in the industry since 2015. While living in Philadelphia, she wrote theater reviews for DC Metro Arts.
U-M Department of Voice's “Orpheus in the Underworld“ runs November 2-5 at the Power Center, 121 Fletcher Street, Ann Arbor. More information, tickets, and hours can be found here.