Arts

Preview: J. Antonio Rodriguez Has a Story to Tell in ‘Hadestown’ at the Ahmanson Theatre

J. Antonio Rodriguez (center) and company in the North American tour of Hadestown. Photo by T Charles Erickson

After scoring the most revenue at the box office last season, the North American tour of Hadestown returns by popular demand to the Ahmanson Theatre on Tuesday, October 3rd (through only Sunday, October 15th).

There’s much to love about Hadestown, where Greek myths meet modern-day sensibilities and where two classic love dyads, involving King Hades/wife Persephone as well as the arguably more renowned Orpheus/Eurydice, have their respective relationships tested by struggles and an ominous, though reimagined, underworld.

The musical is set in a New Orleans-style speakeasy, with the particularly hellish “way down under the ground” represented by a gloomy foundry populated by weary workers. Contemporary metaphors are wrought out of a well-written book (along with music and lyrics) by Anaïs Mitchell with development and direction by Rachel Chavkin.

J. Antonio Rodriguez (right, standing on table) with the cast of the North American tour of Hadestown. Photo by T Charles Erickson

When Hadestown made its premiere in Los Angeles, actor J. Antonio Rodriguez was in the ensemble; now, he is Orpheus, one of the musical’s leads. As an immigrant, and more specifically a DREAMer, he can identify with the worldview of Orpheus who, as sanguine as he is, can be naturally weighed down by uncertainty.

Rodriguez, like other performers who have inhabited Orpheus, has his own lived experience and story to tell. In a recent interview with LAexcites, he elaborates on his connection to the role, his love of theatre, and the draw of Hadestown.

Congrats on getting cast as Orpheus. How did that come about?

Rodriguez: I started my Hadestown journey in February 2022. I was originally booked as a swing and swung for about a year and change. And then I got bumped up and promoted to the role of Orpheus in April of this year. It was really special to see my work get noticed by the creative team and producers. I feel very fortunate and blessed to do this tour across the country right now.

(Foreground, L-R) Hannah Whitley and J. Antonio Rodriguez with the cast of the North American tour of Hadestown. Photo by T Charles Erickson

As you mentioned, you were initially a swing in the cast of the North American tour. Does the transition from ensemble to featured performer feel natural or did it take some getting used to?

Rodriguez: It was kind of a mix. When I was a swing, since I was on every day, I had to be ready in different ways, and at any time — like the morning of or even mid-show. I always took care of myself like I do now by not going out much. Now that I’m doing this eight times a week, I have to be even more mindful of how I take care of myself. I travel with my dog Loki and my partner Cecilia [Trippiedi] who is the dance captain. We’ve been together for about two years, but she joined the tour five months after I did.

It’s been super rewarding [being with Cecilia] as we want each other to succeed as much as possible. It makes being on tour easier and a lot more fun since we can be together; adding distance would make it hard.

(L-R) J. Antonio Rodriguez, Dominique Kempf, Nyla Watson, Belén Moyano in the North American tour of Hadestown. Photo by T Charles Erickson

How do you perceive of the character and how do you think your portrayal might compare to others who have taken on the role?

Rodriguez: I think that Orpheus is the character of a dreamer; he’s an optimist, and sees the best of the world, to a point where it’s very naïve and kind of blind to what is going on. I think it’s cool to go on that journey with his perspective every night in seeing what the world can hold, but keeping the spirit of optimism that the world can be better through everything. It’s very good for me, personally, to go through that journey every night, as I feel I’m more of a Eurydice in my normal life: more cynical and more of a realist. It’s a great thing to be in his shoes three hours every day.

Compared to others who have portrayed Orpheus, in some other shows, it’s more of a machine, where you’re fitting in the mold left behind by someone who has left, which is great, and it has its benefits. But what I love about Hadestown is that it’s written in such a way where anyone can put their perspective on it, and the story changes with individual perspectives pulling from the actors’ experiences.

In my case, I’m Mexican, a DREAMer, and the perspective changes. At one point, Hades says to go back where [Orpheus] came from and that hits hard for me. The Orpheus before me was a Nigerian actor (Chibueze Ihuoma), so that also changes things in the way that story was told. I think it’s so cool where we can do that and have those changing perspectives on important social topics.

(L-R) J. Antonio Rodriguez and Hannah Whitley in the North American tour of Hadestown. Photo by T Charles Erickson

Do you think that by playing Orpheus every night for three hours, you have absorbed some of his optimism and become less of a cynic?

Rodriguez: Oh, l love that! I really do think so, now that I think about it. It’s interesting how that happens when you live in someone else’s shoes.

What do you make of the interesting parallel of Orpheus being a ‘dreamer,’ and you too being a DREAMer, as well as a beneficiary of the DACA program, which has enabled you to continue working in theatre?

Rodriguez: When I was younger, I was more Orpheus-like in the sense I thought the world was open to me, and anything can happen. I can pull from that kind of dreamer and align with Orpheus. I’m a DREAMer, literally, but I also have to look at a more realistic lens which is where the realist comes in. When I play Orpheus now, I think I really play the younger version of myself who had seen what the world can really be [in a positive sense].

I was always more afraid for my parents; that’s where the cynicism comes in and the more realist version of my mindset comes into play.

(L-R) Belén Moyano, J. Antonio Rodriguez, Hannah Whitley, Nyla Watson, and Dominique Kempf in the North American tour of Hadestown. Photo by T Charles Erickson

You’ve said in the past that you feel theatre is the only place you belong. Why do you think that is?

Rodriguez: For me, it’s really because of my life experience. I’m here in this country, fortunate to have DACA, be here legally, and work comfortably without deportation. Because there’s no pathway to citizenship, I’m still not truly a part of the United States, if that makes sense. The worst-case scenario would involve going back to Mexico to a life I do not know, as I don’t belong there. For me, I’m an American, this is all I’ve ever known, and I’ve been here since I was two years old, so it would be like going to an alien world for me.

But on stage, because I’m immersing myself in a character, I feel like I belong there with everyone, and theatre is already so diverse as so many kinds of people make up this community; everyone belongs. [To say theatre is the only place I belong] is an exaggeration but also kind of not.

J. Antonio Rodriguez (center) and cast in the North American tour of Hadestown. Photo by T Charles Erickson

Hadestown has won eight Tony Awards, a Grammy, continues to sell out on Broadway and was the No. 1 grossing musical at the Ahmanson last year. Why do you think the public is so drawn to it, and what do you personally love about it the most?

Rodriguez: I think people love it because it’s such a timeless tale about Greek myths and legends. You can tell these stories over and over again to new generations, and no matter how you tell it, it’s always interesting and thought-provoking. Because Hadestown is a modern telling of a Greek myth, and because we’re adding real-world issues, people connect with that. The whole immigration thing is a big one for me, along with old love vs. new love; there are so many things wrapped up in this beautiful show with amazing music. The music and band are not something you hear every day, either, in a musical theatre show; it’s New Orleans style, folksy music, which draws more than just the regular theatregoing crowd.

For more information on Hadestown at the Ahmanson Theatre (through Sunday, Oct. 15th), and to purchase tickets, please visit centertheatregroup.org.
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