As far as Disney's canon of animated movies goes, 1997's Hercules is considered an underperformer, only earning $252.7 million at the worldwide box office. Truth be told, it was always my favorite product of the company's hand-drawn renaissance, and I've always thought that it could translate very well to the stage, particularly Alan Menken and David Zippel's highly theatrical score. It took more than two decades, but a Hercules musical has finally come to fruition, and it's happening at about the furthest place in NYC that you can get from Broadway: the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.
With Disney's blessing (and, by the looks of it, their budget), Hercules has become the Public Theater's annual Labor Day weekend Public Works community pageant (due to ticket demand, it runs through September 8, several days longer than a typical Public Works show). Created in 2013, Public Works aims to involve all of New York City in the process of creating theater, especially people who wouldn't otherwise have access to it. The company of Hercules features eight Broadway actors and an ensemble of 200 people, ages 5 to 80 , who take part in the Public's year-round series of workshops and potlucks, which culminates in this annual spectacular.
As it stands, Hercules, with songs by Menken and Zippel, a book by Kristoffer Diaz, and direction by Lear deBessonet, makes a great musical, and it's clear in seeing the show that Disney has commercial plans for the newly developed property. But Hercules, as delightful an evening as it is, doesn't necessarily make for a great Public Works musical. This production seems to exist with feet in both worlds, and not always delicately.
Diaz's book follows the screenplay pretty faithfully: Born of deities Zeus and Hera (Public community members Michael Roberts and Tar-Shay Margaret Williams), Hercules (Jelani Alladin, a handsome leading man) becomes an unknowing pawn in a scheme by Hades (the drolly hilarious Tony winner Roger Bart), who's trying to take over the world. A thwarted attempt at infanticide renders Hercules three-quarters mortal, and therefore unable to reside on Mt. Olympus with his parents. Becoming a hero will allow Hercules to retain his rightful place with the gods, but he has to prove himself first, and defeat the lord of the underworld along the way.
Wisely, Diaz, Menken, and Zippel have resisted the impulse to expand the property for this new medium; at 100 minutes, this isn't a bloated two-act mess like Frozen and Aladdin, with new extraneous supporting characters who each get a song for no reason. Instead, the three writers have chosen to simply develop the existing characters: Hercules gets an emotional 11 o'clock number about what it means to be human; Hades gets a smooth, '70s-style blues tune called "A Cool Day in Hell"; and Meg (Krysta Rodriguez, perfection), Hercules's deceptive love interest, receives a hilarious number reflecting her feminist attitudes called "Forget About It." The best part is that the show has a sense of humor about itself, something that you can't always say for Disney musicals, which generally seem to take themselves extremely seriously.
Unlike past years, professional actors assume all of the leading roles in Hercules (completing the roster are James Monroe Iglehart as Phil, Hercules's trainer, who has been transformed from satyr to fully human gyro salesman; and the show-stealing Jeff Hiller as Hades's henchman, Panic). There's less of an emphasis this time around on the community members, who are mostly relegated to nameless ensemble spots (often in these shows, one or two leading characters are taken on by nonpros). It's hard not to cynically imagine an ulterior motive at play, since seeing everyday people shine under the spotlight is frequently the highlight of the evening.
DeBessonet's physical production has less of a homey aesthetic than usual, too. Massive puppets by James Ortiz, expensive-looking costumes by Andrea Hood, and massive LED panels on each side of the stage clearly indicate there's more money behind Hercules than usual. Dane Laffrey designed the largely empty set, while Tyler Micoleau created the extensive lighting plot, which includes beams shining into the night sky, something you don't even see in regular Shakespeare in the Park productions.
It almost feels like Public Works had a small mouse on their shoulder telling them how to adapt their usual concept into something a little more refined. Still, what makes the Public Works formula so special is its commitment to diversity, and Hercules is no different. It's especially heartwarming to see a Disney musical with so many artists of color playing roles that were drawn as Caucasian. If Hercules has a future life, hopefully its next production will follow this model. And that, as they sing, will help it go the distance.