'Hercules': Theater Review

Joan Marcus
Community theater of the most spectacular kind.
9/8/2019

Original songwriters Alan Menken and David Zippel have written five new songs for this stage adaptation of the 1997 Disney animated film, featuring a cast of 200 and playing a free weeklong run in Central Park.

They really got me with the marching band.

The Passaic High School Marching Band, to be precise, which makes a spectacular entrance in the Public Works production of Hercules. There had been no shortage of breathtaking elements in the show before then, to be sure, but when this uniformed band of high school students marched onto the stage playing trombones, tubas, drums and other instruments during one of the big musical numbers, I couldn't stop grinning from the over-the-top excessiveness of it all.

Public Works' mission is to include as many community members as possible alongside professional actors in its annual free summer productions. Hercules features a cast of no less than 200 performers, ranging in age from 5 to 78, as well as groups like the Broadway Inspirational Voices choir and the cheekily named dance troupe 10 Hairy Legs. The idea seems to be that, if not everything onstage seems thoroughly polished, you'll be won you over by the sheer volume.

It certainly works in this stage adaptation of the 1997 Disney animated musical — a box office disappointment in its theatrical release that has since become a home-video staple — featuring songs by Alan Menken and David Zippel. The team has reunited to provide five new numbers for this stage version being given a mere weeklong run at Central Park's Delacorte Theater. Seats are free, distributed by a digital lottery, and are among the hottest tickets in town. Menken has said there are no plans for future productions of the show, and if you believe that, you may also be interested in purchasing a certain bridge in Brooklyn.   

Much like its title character, played charmingly by Jelani Alladin (now there's a name that qualifies you for a Disney show), this Hercules is at once scrappy and spectacular. The book by Kristoffer Diaz, whose credits include the Pulitzer Prize-nominated The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity and the television production of Rent, is serviceable at best, filled with enough hoary, groan-worthy jokes to qualify for a stand-up engagement in the Catskills. And the new songs, supplementing such familiar numbers from the original as "A Star Is Born," "One Last Hope," "Zero to Hero," and, of course, "Go the Distance," aren't likely to enter the Disney canon.

But none of the flaws matter, thanks to the exuberant staging by Public Works founder Lear deBessonet. The fun begins with the appearance of the Greek chorus-like Muses, clad in fabulous sequined dresses, who kick off the proceedings with "The Gospel Truth," the rousing introductory song which is reprised no less than five times in the course of the evening, as if determined to become an earworm from which you will never escape.

The story, for those who somehow managed to avoid Greek myths, the movie's ubiquitous home-video incarnation and numerous spin-offs and sequels, concerns Hercules' travails as an earnest young half man/half god who has become a bit of a social pariah due to his superhuman strength. Born to the gods Zeus (Michael Roberts) and Hera (Tar-Shay Margaret Williams) but raised by human parents (Shannon Rhett, Arianne Recto), Hercules is considered a threat by Hades (Roger Bart), whose minions Pain (Nelson Chimilio) and Panic (Jeff Hiller) failed in their assignment to murder him as a child.

Hercules turns to Philoctetes (James Monroe Iglehart), who hilariously operates a gyro stand with the motto "Get Your Phil," to help train him to fulfill his destiny of becoming a hero. The plot becomes further complicated by the burgeoning romantic relationship between Hercules and the sassy Megara (Krysta Rodriguez, NBC's Smash), who, unbeknownst to him, is secretly working for Hades.

That several of the performers have strong Disney associations is part of the fun. Iglehart won a Tony Award for his performance as the Genie in the Broadway production of Aladdin. And Bart, who entertainingly chews the scenery as the blue-haired Hades ("I hate parks!" he sneers when he makes his entrance), was the singing voice of Hercules in the 1997 movie. His Hades gets a well-deserved vocal showcase with one of the show's new songs, the jazzy "A Cool Day in Hell."

Alladin is a delight in the title role, giving his Hercules a vulnerable, boyish quality that has the audience eating out of the palm of his hand. In addition to his chiseled physique, he infuses his performance with exuberant athleticism, performing multiple cartwheels and, at one point, using a trampoline to propel himself over Iglehart's head. He's well matched by Rodriguez, who garners many laughs and stops the show with her big number, "I Won't Say (I'm in Love)."

While Dane Laffrey's set design consists of little more than several giant, illuminated Greek columns, the production's visual impact is enhanced by Andrea Hood's colorful (and considering the size of the cast, plentiful) costumes and the wonderful, large-scale puppets created by James Ortiz. Chase Brock's frequently campy choreography, which at one point features a scantily clad, all-male kickline, is a lot of fun as well.

The show really pulls out the stops for the rousing numbers "Zero to Hero" and the new "Great Bolts of Thunder," assembling the giant ensemble onstage with expert, traffic-management precision. Everyone in the cast seems to be having the time of their lives, and their enjoyment is so infectious that you can't help but feel the same way.

Venue: Delacorte Theater, New York
Production: Public Works
Cast: Ramona Keller, Brianna Cabrera, Rema Webb, Tamika Lawrence, Tieisha Thomas, Michael Roberts, Tar-Shay Margaret Williams, Roger Bart, Nelson Chimilio, Jeff Hiller, Hasaan Bailey, Isabelle Romero, Kelly Campbell, Shannon Rhett, Arianne Recto, Jelani Alladin, James Monroe Iglehart, Joel Frost, Krysta Rodriguez, Bianca Edwards, Kuno Bueno, Vivian Jett Brown
Music: Alan Menken
Lyrics: David Zippel
Book: Kristoffer Diaz
Director: Lear deBessonet
Chorography: Chase Brock
Set designer: Dane Laffrey
Costume designer: Andrea Hood
Lighting designer: Tyler Micoleau
Sound designer: Kai Harada
Puppet designer: James Ortiz
Presented by The Public Theater