Hercules, the Public Works’ stage adaptation of Disney’s so-so 1997 animated musical, improves on its source not so much on the strength of its characters or the charms of its leading man – though it accomplishes both those feats – but through sheer energy. This Hercules, with songs both old and new by Disney hitmakers Alan Menken and David Zippel and an occasionally clever new book by playwright Kristoffer Diaz, makes for a fine end-of-summer evening in Central Park’s Delacorte Theater, even if it doesn’t add much of great significance to the Disney canon.
Less innovative and enticing than Shaina Taub’s Twelfth Night – last year’s Public Works contribution to Free Shakespeare in the Park’s summer season – Hercules still succeeds where it counts: In the enthusiasm generated both by its lead cast of professionals (including a pitch-perfect Jelani Alladin in the title role and a blue-haired Roger Bart, as Hades, filling all the proper, pop-culture-quoting requirements of a modern-era Disney villain) and the 200-plus ensemble of amateurs (ages 5 to 80+) recruited from partnering community organizations from all five New York City boroughs.
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With five new Menken/Zippel songs added to the film’s short-sheeted line-up of semi-memorable musical numbers, this Hercules goes a way – a small way, but a way – in fleshing out the thin, mid-level-Disney narrative of the ’97 film. The musical padding, if not contributing anything of spectacular worth to the Disney oeuvre, nonetheless contains at least one affable tune appropriate for a late summer evening – a sultry jazz number called “A Cool Day in Hell,” sung by Bart and his two impish minions with the laid-back nonchalance of a “Fever”-ish Peggy Lee.
Plotwise, Diaz’s new book adheres closely to the movie’s narrative (Disney Theatrical Productions ok’d, but took no active involvement, in this show), minus a few film characters and subplots (no Pegasus sidekick for Hercules). Via a gospel-music infused prologue – actually, the entire production is gospel-infused, a nice modern twist on the Greek chorus – the audience learns that the divine Zeus and Hera have had a son, Hercules, a looming threat to Hades’ evil schemes and, so, a target. The lord of the underworld sends his two comic minions – Pain (Nelson Chimilio) and Panic (the scene-stealing Jeff Hiller) to kidnap and poison the babe. In classic fairy tale style, the would-be killers bungle the job, succeeding only in making Hercules mortal.
The foundling is raised by a loving, and entirely human, mom and dad, but the boy’s demi-god nature grows more troublesome with each and every packed-on muscle. A routine trip to the market square inevitably turns into wreckage and disaster as the clumsy teenager, unaware of his own strength, invariably knocks over a Grecian column or two, upends food carts, and generally wreaks unintentional havoc.
Understanding he doesn’t belong in this human world – this Hercules spotlights themes of self-discovery and find-your-place journeys – the extra-strength, if otherwise standard-issue teen beseeches the gods for help, and gets an answer. In the deft, DIY approach favored by Public Works, two large masks – one for Zeus, one for Hera – boom out the revelation that Hercules was born a god, but made mortal, and in order to return to his rightful place on Mount Olympus will have to prove his heroism
Under the training of James Monroe Iglehart’s Philoctetes – Phil for short – Hercules sets out to do some monster-slaying, a mission soon accomplished (the colorful Chinese dragon-style foes are provided by puppet creator James Ortiz).
But the Hydra-killing antics do little to impress the townsfolk (all dressed, variously, in Andrea Hood’s brilliant-hued costumes of varying ethnic origins), whose true needs are more along the lines of affordable housing and income equality. Diaz’s Hercules – vibrantly staged by director and Public Works founder Lear deBessonet – asks, In a world such as this, what makes a true hero?
We’ll find out, of course, as Hercules becomes one with his human community, saves his true love Megara (Krysta Rodriguez) from the grasp of Hades, makes a final choice between divinity and humanity, concluding there’s not really much difference.
Yes, it’s predictable and pat, with broad-strokes messaging that serves the children’s theater vibe and community-embracing goals of the production. Diaz’s book includes its fair share of the pop-culture wisecracks (the word “thirsty” takes on its newer, lusty definition) and fourth-wall-breaking quips that have been Disney de rigueur at least since Robin Williams conjured his style-setting Genie in 1992’s Aladdin. (“Public Theater,” sniffs a contemptuous Hades upon his entrance. “I hate parks.”)
Iglehart, a Tony winner for his performance as the Genie in Broadway’s Aladdin, does a clever, contemporary spin on a Burgess Meredith-style athletic trainer. Bart, as usual, is a stand-out, but even he gets a run for his money from the devilish imp played by Hiller. As the anti-damsel in distress Meg, Rodriguez (NBC’s Smash) brings a leather-jacketed rock & roll defiance to the party, hitting few other notes.
A sequin-bedecked quintet of Muses serves as Greek chorus, lending full-throated gospel power and, here and there, girl group harmonies to the show, soaring above the colorfully costumed 200-plus amateur cast. Endearing even when not quite up to the fast-paced demands of Chase Brock’s tireless choreography, the stage newcomers add an appealing all-in-this-together enthusiasm familiar to anyone who saw last season’s superior Twelfth Night.
As good as so many of the supporting players are, though, Hercules belongs to its hero, so well played by Alladin. Buoyant and athletic, the actor (he originated the role of Kristoff in Broadway’s Frozen), has an aw-shucks quality that suits the teenage Herc, and, being a black actor, Alladin’s brief on-the-street take-down by a couple Centurions can’t help but project a contemporary relevance to the otherwise comic proceedings. It’s brief and passing, but there if you look.
Will the newish Hercules, complete with the film’s demi-known songs “Go The Distance,” “Zero To Hero,” “One Last Hope” and “A Star Is Born,” travel beyond this Central Park staging? No plans have been announced, or even hinted, and it’s difficult to imagine this sprawling, charmingly unpolished endeavor in a Broadway theater. Hercules has never been a Disney classic – likable enough, but minor. The new production doesn’t powerlift the tale beyond those limits.
Hercules’ limited engagement at the Delacorte Theater in New York’s Central Park ends Sept. 8.
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