The Public Theater’s new production of Hercules began its limited run on Saturday night at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater. While there is a lot of new material here including five new songs from Alan Menken and David Zippel as well as a reimagined ending, fans of the film will be delighted at just how well the production captures the spirit and energy of the original.
It’s difficult to identify a Disney film more suited to this type of adaptation than Hercules, and the show’s director, Lear deBessonet, deserves credit for recognizing this. Hercules is epic in scale but doesn’t take itself as seriously as other films of Disney’s Renaissance, and this gives the source material a pliability that other films simply don’t have. This is a playful story that doesn’t lose anything for not being performed in an ornate theatre with lavish sets. It works beautifully in Central Park on a stage flanked with cartoonish columns. Also, despite packing real emotional heft, the story and characters are often delightfully ridiculous and thus have a wider range for interpretation, and this production takes full advantage of that.
DeBessonet and her team often challenge our perceptions of the characters, settings and themes that we’ve known for 20 years, sometimes for humor, sometimes for relevancy and sometimes to challenge our worldview. Unlike many of those live-action reboots we’ve seen from the Disney Studios, this reimagining asks us to think about the main themes of heroes and heroism, community, and family in different ways than the film. While the production maintains the fun and vitality of the original, it never once feels like it’s exploiting the popularity of it or like it’s a theme park attraction. It is the high-quality work that one expects from The Public Theater, which is no small accomplishment.
Of course, the Menken/Zippel music is a key component of the success here as well. The original Gospel-inspired songs such as “Zero to Hero” and “A Star is Born” make for fantastic crowd-pleasing production numbers that fill the stage (literally) and energize the audience. In truth, most of the new songs are fine additions but don’t have the same impact. Songs like “The Prophecy” and “Uniquely Greek Tough Town” don’t further the story or provide anything more than what the audience got from the spoken dialogue of the film. Two exceptions are “Forget About It” and “A Cool Day in Hell” which provide more opportunity for characterization of Megara (Krysta Rodriguez) and finally give Hades (Roger Bart) the villain song he deserves respectively.
The main cast here is truly fantastic. Jelani Alladin (Hercules) captures the well-meaning awkwardness of the character perfectly and can sure sell “Go the Distance.” With an equally impressive voice, Krysta Rodriguez seems to effortlessly find the balance of Megara’s sarcastic nature and her vulnerability. Disney fans will remember Roger Bart as the singing voice of Hercules in the 1997 film (Tate Donovan provided Herc’s speaking voice) and James Monroe Iglehart (Phil) for creating the role of Genie in the Broadway production of Aladdin for which he won a Tony. A hallmark of the Public Works program is that the productions feature Broadway stars and community actors and the enormous company of Hercules features a diverse cast of players including young children, octogenarians, and an entire high school marching band that seems to just materialize during the climax. As you might expect, many of these supporting performances are not on par with the those of the musical theatre heavyweights leading the cast, but this work reflects the community in an impressive way. And it only enriches the zany energy of Hercules in a way that it might not if this were, say, Frozen.
Which is not to say that there aren’t some parts of the show that might leave you scratching your head a bit. Hera (Tar-Shay Margaret Williams) has an expanded role in this version, (which I appreciated because I always questioned her absence for most of the film) but while she’s given more dialogue, she’s not given anything important to say which almost feels worse than silence. Zeus (Michael Roberts) is openly disdainful of his turned-mortal son which makes Hercules’ decision to stay on Earth at the end feel like a much easier one. There are some beautiful puppets, but the puppetry is rather awkward. You might wonder how exactly a marching band defeats a titan or how one might kill a hydra with a slingshot. Ultimately though, you really don’t care because it’s Hercules. I’m not sure if there any future plans for this latest reimaging of a Disney property, but if it has some distance to go, future producers would do well to maintain the manic and playful nature of The Public Theater’s production that has so much more chaos and consequently so much more heart and authenticity than other Disney reboots.
Hercules is playing at The Delacorte Theater in Central Park through September 8th. Free standby tickets may be available nightly through a lottery system. Further information can be found here.
The animated classic will also be airing as part of Freeform’s 30 Days of Disney programming block, which runs throughout the month of September. Plus, the film will be available on Disney+ when the streaming service launches on November 12.