Hercules Review: Disney at the Delacorte, a Public Works Pageant

“Hercules,” a stage adaptation of the 1997 Disney cartoon, is the latest free, Labor Day weekend spectacle at the Delacorte in Central Park by the Public Theater’s Public Works, which for seven years now has marked the end of summer as surely as Back to School commercials and freshmen roaming around NYU with their hands in their pockets.
As in the previous Public Works productions — The Tempest in 2013, The Winters Tale in 2014, The Odyssey in 2015, Twelfth Night in 2016 (with an encore in 2018), and As You Like It in 2017 — “Hercules” is like a party, featuring a handful of professional actors and hundreds of delighted performers from “community partners” in all five borough

Among the participants in the first five Public Works “pageants,” as the people who run Public Works like to call them, were 516 “community ensemble members,” 141 choir singers, 26 hip hop dancers, 17 ASL/deaf performers, and one lion puppet. This year’s performers number more than 200, including a 14-member “puppet corps,” handling the giant puppets designed by James Ortiz; the members of Broadway Inspirational Voices; and the Passaic High School Marching Band.
Unlike the previous pageants, there is little danger that purists will be offended by the liberties the creative team takes. After all, this is not a musical adaptation of Shakespeare or Homer, although Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis does all he can to mask the show’s origins in a relatively low-grossing Disney animation (“Hercules is one of the great characters of the classical tradition,” Eustis writes in a program note, “a hero whose name is as recognizable now as it was 2,500 years ago… Public Works is embarking for a second time on dramatizing a Greek myth….”)

Are there Disney purists who can object to Andrea Hood’s Vegas-quality costumes, sparkling with sequins, or Dane Laffrey’s Times Square-quality set design, complete with towers armed with zippers (which is the official name for those ticker-like signs made out of countless light bulbs)?
Stacked up against other Disney stage adaptations, this one avoids some of the standard Disney drawbacks – rather than overpriced, it’s free; rather than overlong, it’s only 90 minutes – and keeps what’s best about Disney stage shows, above all, a terrific cast.

Kristoffer Diaz (the playwright best known for “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” and as the former story editor for the wrestling TV series GLOW) has written a jokey book, some of the jokes mildly risqué, which is unlikely either to tarnish nor much enhance the Disney brand. The book keeps to the plot of the cartoon but adjusts its message for a New York theater audience in 2019.

Jelani Alladin (who portrayed Kristoff in “Frozen”) is a suitably eager and honest young Hercules, born from the god Zeus (Michael Roberts) and the mortal Hera (Tar-Shay Margaret Williams), and snatched as an infant by Pain and Panic, who intend to poison him, on the orders  of the evil Hades (Roger Bart, who provided the singing voice for Hercules in the film, and here provides much of the comedy. He enters sneering “Public Theater. I hate parks!”) Pain and Panic (reliably goofy Nelson Chimilio and Jeff Hiller) are unreliable, so Hercules lives, although the poison makes him mortal, and he is found and adopted by a mortal couple. As a young adult, he finally meets his birth parents, but they say a mortal like him can’t go home to Olympus (“Mortals are weak. They are self serving and careless, and they die.”) — unless he becomes a hero. And so he sets out on a journey to prove he can become a hero (singing the Oscar-nominated song “Go The Distance.”) Along the way, he mets Phil, whom a friend describes as “the greatest ‘epic-journey-to-prove-yourself-to-the- gods’ guy in Greece” (portrayed by the always wonderful James Monroe Iglehart, the Tony-winning Genie in “Aladdin.”) Disillusioned, Phil has given that up to sell gyros (“Heroes die. Gyros get eaten”) — but Hercules persuades him to become his trainer. Together, they search for people to save, villains to vanquish, challenges to overcome, .

Right away, Hercules tries to prove himself when he sees a damsel in distress, in “the grips of a giant, ugly, monster.”

“Hey,” the monster says. “Words hurt.”

But the damsel is Meg (the stellar Krysta Rodriguez), and she doesn’t need or want to be saved. She sings:

What would I do in a world without men
I would do as I please
Let me say that again
I would do as I please
Not yearning for my hero at last
Forget about it fast

That song, “Forget About It,” is one of five new ones by the original Disney songwriters, composer Alan Menken and lyricist David Zippel, out of 21 musical numbers,  most of them  soul-tinted with the aid of a Greek chorus that’s a gospel chorus. (Six of the numbers are just different versions of the song “The Gospel Truth.”) The new songs help update the show, both in current references (“The Art of the Deal” makes its way into the lyrics of Hades’ new song, “A Cool Day in Hell”) and in current values. Meg isn’t the only one who doesn’t need a hero. When Hercules, with Phil in tow,  marches into Thebes offering his services as a hero, the townspeople want to know:
“Can you help me find affordable housing…create some jobs…balance income inequality….improve the integrity of our civil discourse?”

Hercules replies: “Did I mention I was strong?”

If the plot of “Hercules” is familiar, and its happy ending no surprise, there’s real uplift in the message delivered not just in the script but by the presence of the hundreds of diverse New Yorkers on stage — true strength comes from an entire community, and real heroics come from serving it.

 

Hercules
Music by Alan Menken
Lyrics by David Zippel
Book by Kristoffer Diaz
Choreography by Chase Brock
Directed by Lear deBessonet
Scenic design by Dane Laffrey, costume design by Andrea Hood, lighting design by Tyler Micoleau, sound design by Kai Harada, puppet design by James Ortiz, orchestrations by Danny Troob and Joseph Joubert, music supervisor, arranger  and conductor Michael Kosarin
Based on the Disney film written by Ron Clements, John Musker, Donald McEnery, Bob Shaw, and Irene Mecchi, and directed by Ron Clements and John Musker.
Cast:
200+ New Yorkers including
Jelani Alladin (Hercules), Roger Bart (Hades), Jeff Hiller(Panic), James Monroe Iglehart (Philoctetes), Ramona Keller (Thalia), Tamika Lawrence (Calliope), Krysta Rodriguez (Megara), Rema Webb (Terpsichore), cameo groups 10 Hairy Legs, Passaic High School Marching Band, and a special featured performance by Broadway Inspirational Voices.

The Public Works community partner organizations are Brownsville Recreation Center(Brooklyn),Center for Family Life in Sunset Park(Brooklyn),DreamYard(Bronx),The Fortune Society(Queens),andMilitary Resilience Foundation(all boroughs), along with alumni partnersCasita Maria Center forArts and Education(Bronx),Children’s Aid(all boroughs),andDomestic Workers United(allboroughs

Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission

Please note: there is no performances on Tuesday, September 3 but there is an (suddenly added) performance on Wednesday, September 4 at 8pm

Hercules is on stage at the Delacorte through September 8,2020

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Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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