These Upcoming Cincinnati Productions Are Blasts from the Past

Centuries-old stories can feel modern and relevant in the right creative hands.

Illustration by Eva Redamonti

People too often dismiss a classic play or musical, a ballet, an opera, a symphonic work, or a pop music performance as being “old-fashioned.” An act of nostalgia. A cliché.

Audiences crave newness, especially (but not exclusively) younger generations. But they too often miss the point: There’s a reason that old stories, especially Greek myths and Shakespearean plays, are repeatedly performed. The best ones offer timeless life lessons and are simply entertaining, and they can be updated in all sorts of unusual and clever ways.

Consider the touring production of the Tony-winning Broadway musical Hadestown (April 18–30 at the Aronoff Center for the Arts), based on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. In the story, lyre-playing and singing Orpheus treks into the underworld to return his wife, Eurydice, to the world of the living. Hades, who lords over the grim hellscape, eventually agrees to let Eurydice leave with him—as long as Orpheus doesn’t look back at her on their return home. Tragedy unfolds from there.

Hadestown debuted on Broadway in 2019 thanks to folk-oriented singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, whose story presents the original tale through contemporary Americana and jazz music and lively and emotional vocal arrangements. Along with an imaginative set, stylistic acting, and an overall relatable tone, the Greek myth is recast for modern audiences.

The show utilizes six onstage musicians and a backstage drummer. Several actors also play instruments: Orpheus on guitar, and the three Fates (a Greek Chorus–like trio of seers who encourage the heroes) playing violin, accordion, tambourine, and bells. “You reach out for stories over and over again, but you do it differently for different audiences,” says Belén Moyano, the violin-playing Fate. “The way this was written is really beautiful, with the power of music and the power of myth. Really, it’s about the power of Orpheus’s voice. The music plays such an important part here.”

Ultimately, Hadestown inspires audiences because the hopeful Orpheus tries so hard to make things better, and his songs move listeners. “The idea of a musician who could possibly change the world is a powerful idea we like to believe in,” says Liam Robinson, musical director for the Hadestown tour.

That hopeful message has a special timely meaning for Moyano. “As we rehearsed in New York and were still in masks and there were still COVID outbreaks all around us, we dreamed of getting our story out into the world to give people hope,” she says. “Bringing people to the theater to share our hearts with them keeps us going.”

Cincinnati Shakespeare Company is staging a new version of the Bard’s As You Like It April 7–29, a comedy first performed around 1600 that often uses modern settings and music to connect with contemporary audiences. This production is set in 1990s London and uses Brit-pop songs composed by Cary Davenport.

“It’s wonderful to see Shakespeare performed in Elizabethan garb, and we do that too,” says Brian Isaac Phillips, the company’s artistic director. “But for this one, Davenport is a brilliant composer who’s been doing a lot of music for our productions for over a decade, so this was an opportunity to let his artistry and voice shine next to Shakespeare’s words.”

Phillips says the current tradition of As You Like It infusing new productions with modern music is appropriate, as the play’s classic characters perform their own songs throughout.

Cincinnati Ballet is also seeking to update myths and masterpieces this month. Beauty and the Beast (April 13– 16 at Music Hall) might be considered a modern love story, thanks to Disney, but in fact its characters and lessons of acceptance originate from a mid-1700s French fairy tale. In the right artistic hands, even centuries-old material can feel eternally contemporary.

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