Review: “Hercules” Musical Not Quite as Heroic as Expected

Let me begin by saying that “Hercules” was a beloved part of my childhood. I am one of the many millenials who were raised on Disney and so I looked forward with glee when the musical adaptation of “Hercules” was announced to be playing in Central Park this summer. Upon hearing that Alan Menken and David Zippel, who did the original music and lyrics for the film, were returning, it seemed too good to be true. Add in Disney and/or Broadway darlings Jelani Alladin, Krysta Rodriguez, James Monroe Iglehart, and Roger Bart and this adaptation seemed almost god-like.

This production is part of the Public Works program which focuses on community engagement, and like all of their park shows, it included a cast numbering in the hundreds, complete with dancers, singers, puppeteers, and even a marching band. On the one hand, adding a massive ensemble to any Disney production seems perfect and quite on brand; indeed, the community aspect of this musical emphasized themes about civic engagement and celebrity while helping to provide the piece with the scale expected from a Disney stage spectacular. However, Public Works productions are not known for their sets, big budgets, or stage magic, and this was no exception. In a stark contrast to its gargantuan cast, the production itself felt oddly stripped down — dare I say, lacking even.

This may have something to do with the slightly uneven direction by Lear DeBessonet and the adapted book by Kristopher Diaz. Although Diaz has expanded the text a bit, and Menken and Zippel have added several songs and reprises, this new (and perhaps not-so-improved) “Hercules” runs only about 85 minutes, no intermission, which is somehow shorter than the original film.

There have been some cuts, most noticeably the deletion of Hercules’ sidekick, Pegasus (a childhood favorite of mine). Otherwise, the writing team has changed the structure of the opening, lengthened some book scenes, tweaked the climatic battle to involve the community ensemble, and given Hades and Meg a bit more to sing. Sadly, all of these additions are not very successful. The expanded scenes lag, the new songs feel hastily and blandly written, and the plot changes don’t make much sense.

Making Meg (played by the superb yet under-utilized Krysta Rodriguez) even more feminist was a great choice, and her additional song has some spark to it, but Rodriguez is never really given a chance to shine, even during the crowd-favorite “I Won’t Say I’m in Love.” Here she gets over-powered vocally by the five muses (one of many sound issues of this production). Although the muses unintentionally steal sonic focus during Meg’s big song, they are otherwise the best part of the show; five fierce black women wearing white gown and belting us through the plot is everything I ever wanted in a “Hercules” musical.

Roger Bart plays Hades in what seems like a bit of uninspired stunt-casting; for those not up on their Disney trivia, Bart was the singing voice of Hercules in the 1997 film. His Hades is drool and completely void of any of the wonderful evil, campy energy of the original; sadly, Bart lacks the charisma and comedic chops for the role. His new song, “A Cool Day in Hell” is probably the most boring part of the show.

Jelani Alladin as Hercules is acrobatic and hilarious, making an icon his own, but he seems unable to carry such a huge show on his human shoulders, and he sadly isn’t given much help from the writers or director. Thankfully, James Monroe Iglehart as Phil, his trainer, is absolutely perfect and lends a helping hand whenever he can.

Several things about the production just felt off, from the new material that didn’t gel to the confusing costumes by Andrea Hood, which included the Gods in sequins, Hercules in a white toga, Hades in a shiny tailored suit, the ensemble in street clothes, and Meg in heels, a leather jacket, and pants (borrowing an equation from “Frozen” on Broadway, princess in pants equals feminism, duh).

As crushed as you may be in reading all this, trust that I am even more upset writing it. Every part of me wanted to love this production, but I just can’t. The Public Works’ musical adaptation of “Hercules” did not add anything to the film and mostly just left me feeling disappointed in all the missed opportunities. I went in excited for a heroic tale from my childhood, but instead what I got was more of a Greek tragedy where an iconic film was poorly adapted for the stage. Alas, this “Hercules” is not quite a zero, but it is certainly not the hero of a musical that we all were hoping for.

Theater Critic. Vassar College alum, current PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center.

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