Review: Hercules Takes Another Step on Its Hero’s Journey at Paper Mill Playhouse

Alan Menken and David Zippel’s popular score comes to the stage in a developing adaptation of the 1997 animated Disney movie.

The trajectory of the Hercules stage musical has been a bit like the hero’s journey it depicts— which is both good and bad news for the current production at Paper Mill Playhouse. The bad news is it hasn’t quite settled the identity crisis it entered the world with during its 2019 New York premiere at the Delacorte Theater. The good news is it seems to be inching closer, even if it is still in its clumsy adolescence.

Naturally returning to the creative team for this second mounting are composer Alan Menken and lyricist David Zippel, whose songs for the original 1997 animated Disney movie remain the shining centerpiece of Hercules. All theatrical sins are forgiven when the Muses — the extraordinary Anastasia McCleskey, Destinee Rea, Charity Angél Dawson, Tiffany Mann, and Rashidra Scott — burn the house down with soulful earworms like “Gospel Truth” and “Zero to Hero” (Menken’s street urchins from Little Shop of Horrors have always fit nicely in ancient Greece). It’s almost as if director Lear deBessonet (also returning from the Delacorte production) and the show’s new book writers Robert Horn and Kwame Kwei-Armah should look to this scaffolding Greek chorus of Muses as…their muses.

Hercules feels most like the Hercules we know and love inside the musical stylings, the aesthetic, and the self-referential humor of this group of riffing narrators. Even costume designer Emilio Sosa seems particularly inspired by the quintet, giving them the sleekest collection of costumes, while our godly characters — Hades (Shuler Hensley), Zeus (Dennis Stowe), and Hera (Kristen Faith Oei) — are dressed in a more Disney World vein (Hensley makes a quintessential Disney villain of Hades but does the job well). It’s when these women leave the show to its own devices that it seems to forget itself and the brisk pacing at which it thrives.

Newly expanded from its former one-act form to a full two-act musical, Hercules takes artistic liberties with its central mythical character to tell a story of a part-human-part-God who fails to fit comfortably in either world. The show attempts to blend bildungsroman, love story, hero-villain mêlée, and song-and-dance musical comedy — a vast undertaking that is clearly still in flux. The book writers linger too long on Hercules’ origin story in order to introduce all the main players, but then rush through climactic moments in Act 2.

Horn, whose zingers in the musical Tootsie earned him a Tony Award, takes up space in the libretto with jokes that are sometimes worth the pause in story progression but frequently are not. And at the top of Act 2, we cede the floor to Aladdin‘s Tony-winning Genie, James Monroe Iglehart (reprising his performance as Hercules’ trainer Phil with ebullience and heart), for an inordinate amount of time just so we can watch him defy fatigue in signature fashion with the funky song “I’m Back!”

Of course, we can’t forget about the man himself. Bradley Gibson stars in the demanding title role, which he fills admirably as a confirmed triple threat with a Herculean physique to boot. He does not disappoint with his sweet and yearning performance of everyone’s favorite I-Want song, “Go the Distance.” His rendering of Hercules, however, often reflects the indecision of the show around him. His boyish naivete suggests a musical aiming for elementary school audiences, leaving scant romantic energy for his love interest Meg.

Thankfully, this fiercely independent ingenue is inhabited by Isabelle McCalla, who strikes a miraculous balance of both tones while also juggling humor and sympathy (she sings excellent renditions of Menken’s popular “I Won’t Say (I’m in Love)” as well as Meg’s clever new character song, “Forget About It”). Onstage together, Gibson and McCalla make a charming duo and leave us wanting more than just one flirtatious scene.

Between all these moving pieces we have exciting dance breaks co-choreographed by Chase Brock and Tanisha Scott that reliably lift the energy to proper Menken levels. It’s a joy to watch Paper Mill’s fabulous ensemble of dancers do what they do best on Dane Laffrey’s visually impressive set, and inside these vignettes are flashes of what Hercules could and should be: a heartwarming story about finding your place in a world that is as filled with life-affirming gospel music as it is with grotesque monsters. If this production is Hercules‘ second labor, it only has 10 more to go.