Levi Kreis leads the souls of “Hadestown”

Levi Kreis and the cast of “Hadestown.”

Eight times a week, Levi Kreis conducts a train to the underworld. The out actor and musician is currently crisscrossing the country as Hermes in the national tour of “Hadestown,” which reaches Philadelphia on Feb. 9 for a two-week run at the Academy of Music.

The wildly popular musical, which took home seven Tony Awards in 2019 for its Broadway production, was one of the first shows to hit the road when touring resumed last fall. A romantic and occasionally irreverent spin on two famed Greek myths – the doomed love story of Orpheus and Eurydice, and the bumpy marriage of Hades and Persephone – it has garnered a devoted fanbase, who have already turned out for engagements in Boston, D.C., New Orleans and Dallas.

Kreis, 48, is no stranger to the spotlight himself. After beginning his career as a recording artist and film actor, he won a Tony in 2010 for his Broadway debut performance as Jerry Lee Lewis in “Million Dollar Quartet.” Since then, he’s returned to Broadway, starred in regional theater and released multiple albums. In “Hadestown,” he gets to bring his blend of gospel, pop-rock and Southern soul to his role as the show’s de facto narrator, who guides the audience through the main characters’ descents to Hell.

The creative team, including composer Anaïs Mitchell and director Rachel Chavkin, encouraged Kreis to put a personal stamp on the part. In an interview, Kreis mentioned that Chavkin envisioned his Hermes as somewhere between Chris Sullivan (now best known for NBC’s “This Is Us”), who played the role in an Off-Broadway production, and André de Shields, who won a Tony for his performance on Broadway.

“I’m from Tennessee, so I grew up with roots and blues and gospel,” Kreis said. “It’s in my DNA, so I understand that aspect of the music and how Chris played the role. And I have quite a bit of that showman that André brings. I think that’s one of the things that drew them to me. There are elements of those styles that I authentically embody not just in this character, but which I also bring to a lot of different characters that I do.”

Chavkin and the tour cast have taken creative freedom with the touring production. Kreis is quick to point out that audiences around the country are not simply getting a facsimile of the show as it’s performed on Broadway.

“The creative team is almost treating it as if we have the opportunity to originate the roles for a tour, and that’s super exciting for me,” Kreis said. “I am not the only character who is very different from the one you might see on Broadway. Every character is very different – very specifically different voices, personalities, all around. We are all bringing something very unique to the table, while maintaining the integrity of this gorgeous show. It’s almost like experiencing the show for the first time, and I think that is a huge draw for people on the tour.”

Since heading out in October, Kreis has had a front-row seat to the large-scale reopening of the live theater industry. Although he is no stranger to the touring world – early in his career, he hit the road as Roger in the iconic Jonathan Larson musical “RENT” – this experience has been particularly eye-opening and satisfying.

“The most palpable experience is the very real experience of theater being back,” he said. “We are reminded with every new city that for a lot of people, it’s their first show back. That’s kind of the gift that keeps on giving – there’s this collective rejoicing, collective celebration that you just feel as an undercurrent. It’s not been a very easy two years, and I can’t articulate enough how important it is that we all get to experience this medium again.”

Theater has been a home to Kreis throughout his career, but he initially set out to make his mark in the recording industry. In his early days on the music scene, though, he experienced homophobia and was urged to remain closeted – particularly as he sought to make a name for himself in gospel music.

“I moved through eight major record labels throughout the 2000s, with the biggest music moguls – you name them, they have signed me,” Kreis recalled. “But once the marketing team tried to figure out how they were going to deal with an openly gay person, everything fell apart.”

Kreis even survived multiple stints of conversion therapy, beginning in eighth grade, because he felt it was necessary for a successful career on the gospel circuit. He recalled an epiphany when, after being signed to a gospel record deal, he finally came to a moment of self-acceptance.

“I remember being in my college dorm room after six years of conversion therapy, with all the different translations of scripture laying out before me in my dorm room, and thinking to myself, ‘I don’t think God really cares about this.’ I confided in my roommate, and he went to the board of directors of the college – I was outed on campus, which was a scandal, and an intern at the record label who went to the college told them, so I lost that record deal. And that was just the opening chapter of my life.”

Kreis speaks frankly about losing employment opportunities and avenues of career advancement in his early life due to being openly gay. Now happily married to Jason Antone, a classical music crossover artist, he has hope for the next generation of out performers who are living authentically.

“I think there are incredible opportunities now that are truly being given to the LGBTQ+ community that make my heart so glad,” Kreis said. “We have come a very long way, and I now get to see twentysomethings who do get to have their dreams, because they don’t have big corporations trying to hide them from society.”

The Philadelphia engagement of the “Hadestown” national tour plays Feb. 9-20 at the Kimmel Cultural Campus’ Academy of Music. For tickets and information on Covid-19 policies, visit www.kimmelculturalcampus.org/.