Review of Hercules, based on the Disney classic, at the Delacorte Theater

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    September 3, 2019
    Review by:

    The air around the Delacorte Theater was ripe with anticipation. I’d passed the stand-by lottery on the way in, and there were squeals of excitement as winning numbers were being called out. I’ll always remember feeling that I was taking part in the event of the season.

    Such is part of the charm of this new staging of the 1997 Disney classic, Hercules. Public Works, as a branch of the Public Theater, restores and builds community by connecting people through theater—both in its presentation and consumption. Aside from the largely diverse (and diversely large) cast, the production features Broadway Inspirational Voices and other performance groups in several well-utilized cameos. I also don’t think it was lost on anyone that the work was being presented at the Delacorte’s open-air amphitheater, which was, in Greek fashion, highly conducive to the shared environment and engagement of the audience.

    And the show itself was every bit as momentous as expected. Packed into a trim 90-minute running time, Hercules makes room for new material and staging considerations by preserving only what deserved to stay from the movie. Kristoffer Diaz’s new, up-to-code script eschews the “born-to-be-special” hero trope for a well-placed message about community engagement, with modern solutions to face modern problems. The movie’s bulky elemental titans have been replaced with the likes of Fear, Hatred, and Greed (magnificent puppets by James Ortiz), defeated in reverse order as the people, instead of Hercules alone, come together to rise up against them.

    At the center of this is Jelani Alladin’s naive, vulnerable, playful Hercules, much more in touch with the nature of his ambitions and equipped with a rich, buttery vibrato. At his side is the characteristically jaunty James Monroe Iglehart, whose empathetic and selfless guardianship of Hercules I definitely warmed to. Roger Bart’s Hades is an undeniably large presence (in Andrea Hood’s costumes, which really give one the sparkle of immortality) whose comedic sensibilities are slightly outclassed by his lackies, Pain and Panic (one uproarious Jeff Hiller). But of all the roles that enjoyed strengthened characterization, none was more deserving than Megara. Krysta Rodriguez is spunk incarnate, and a dream casting for a character that now thankfully has much more agency. The cynical but self-driven Meg’s dichotomy with Hercules also feeds into their delightful chemistry.

    For my money, THIS is how you adapt a work. Public Works asked not how to translate Hercules to a new medium, instead deciding to take the roots of a beloved work and create something else. The show’s message of unity and humanity is perfectly married with its execution. The finesse applied in both are present in the climactic “Great Bolts of Thunder” battle scene, where the assembled Thebans defeat the themed titans, but through no specific visual means. To me, this goes to show that abstraction is a powerful and many-splendored thing, arguably most suited to the medium of theatre, and only in the right hands.

    (Photo by Joan Marcus)

    "Happily, the changes the creative team has instituted to make Hercules suitable today are entirely successful; much of the new material is better than the old, and the Public Works format is strong enough to transform even middlebrow mass entertainment into meaningful political theater."
    Jesse Green for New York Times

    "As a testing ground for a possible Broadway future for Hercules, the park production shows how emotionally rich this property is, and that Disney Theatricals should have greater faith in the runts of its catalog. Indeed, some version of “Hercules” should go the distance — to Broadway."
    Johnny Oleksinski for New York Post

    "Director Lear deBessonet’s homespun production runs about as long as the original film — just over 90 minutes — despite the addition of five mostly catchy new songs (also from Menken and Zippel, whose witty lyrics include the gem-like rhyming of sinew with continue). But the show also captures the bouncy energy and fleet storytelling of the original, which adapted the Greek myth of half-God, half-human Hercules for the Disney storybook set."
    Thom Geier for The Wrap

    "Alladin is a delight in the title role, giving his Hercules a vulnerable, boyish quality that has the audience eating out of the palm of his hand. In addition to his chiseled physique, he infuses his performance with exuberant athleticism, performing multiple cartwheels and, at one point, using a trampoline to propel himself over Iglehart's head. He's well matched by Rodriguez, who garners many laughs and stops the show with her big number, "I Won't Say (I'm in Love).""
    Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter