Twenty years after the fan-favorite Disney Renaissance film debuted in 1997, legendary composer Alan Menken revealed that he was working on a stage adaptation of "Hercules," the tale of a young man on his road to becoming a hero and finding out where he belongs in the world. Reunited with lyricist David Zippel, the Disney Legend created a number of all-new songs to compliment a book by Kristoffer Diaz and Robert Horn for the latest musical from the House of Mouse.
A few years later in 2019, the production made its world premiere at the Delacorte Theater in New York City's Central Park with a stellar cast that featured Jelani Alladin, who originated the role of Kristoff on stage in "Frozen," as Hercules, Tony Award winner James Monroe Iglehart of "Aladdin" on Broadway as Phil, star of NBC's "Smash" Krysta Rodriguez as Meg, and, instead of revisiting the character that he provided the singing voice for in the original animated movie, Roger Bart turned to the dark side to play the Lord of the Underworld Hades.
But now as it gears up for a potential Broadway run with an almost entirely new cast and a revised book from Horn and Kwame Kwei-Armah, the show (now dubbed "Disney's Hercules: The Mythical Musical Adventure") is currently running for a limited engagement at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey, which has hosted many Disney Theatrical Productions projects including "Newsies," "Mary Poppins," and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." And as much as I would love to say that this musical goes from zero to hero since this version of the Greek myth is near and dear to me, unfortunately, I won't say I'm in love. Although, with a few tweaks, Herc could go the distance on the Great White Way.
The Gospel Truth
As with all Disney movies that have made the jump from the screen to the stage, the story of "Hercules" is a little different than the source material. A few characters, like Herc's best friend/faithful winged steed Pegasus and his adoptive father Amphitryon, have been omitted. Phil is still a trainer of heroes, but he's no longer a satyr. And Hera's involvement has been elevated from a grieving mother and background character to wise and regal queen, standing right alongside her husband Zeus as they offer guidance to their demigod son when he visits their temple.
But the biggest change in the plot comes from the addition of new themes such as civil engagement and the value of failure. And while they are worthy of exploration and certainly have a place in this story, the execution isn't carried out in the best possible way. Instead, the climax of the second act is muddled with confusion that could have been avoided if one small detail carried over from Disney's original retelling of this legendary myth.
This may technically be a spoiler, but it's mostly for the 1997 feature rather than the new musical: When Hercules and Hades make a deal to save Meg, it should only be valid if Meg is unharmed. In the movie, when Meg sacrifices herself, that makes the agreement null and void, then Hercules is able to save the day. These events play out a little differently in the stage version in a way that doesn't make sense. While it's great to see the citizens of Thebes rally behind Hercules on stage and offer their assistance in his time of need, this scene could have benefitted from some clarity that would have made the moment more logical and less Hallmark card cheesy.
A Cool Day In Hell
In terms of the cast, they do a great job keeping things lively and energetic. Bradley Gibson captures the boyish charm and innocent naiveté of the titular hero. He also shines vocally in the show-stopping numbers "Go the Distance" and "To Be Human." Isabelle McCalla effortlessly conveys Meg's street smarts and guarded persona with a hint more of comedic flare than Susan Egan's animated version. And Iglehart proves yet again that his energy onstage is unmatched. Just like his previous roles of the Genie or Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson, he delivers yet another kinetic performance, particularly during the top of the second act where he seamlessly goes from intricate number to intricate number while still possessing Phil's signature grit.
But the absolute breakout stars of the entire production were the Muses. Charity Angél Dawson, Tiffany Mann, Anastascia McClesky, Destinee Rea, and Rashidra Scott wholeheartedly deserved the standing ovation they received from the audience at the conclusion of our performance. This literal Greek chorus did the majority of the heavy lifting in the storytelling department and their voices were powerful enough to carry the load. Each and every one of them are divas in their own right and they all deserve the spotlight they're getting in this show.
However, on the flip side, the one weak point right now is Hades. The beloved villain is meant to be sassy, flamboyant, and hot-headed. While Shuler Hensely is no stranger to antagonists, especially his seminal performance as Jud Fry opposite Hugh Jackman's Curly in "Oklahoma!", he wasn't turned up enough to fully capture this version of the god of the dead. To make the character more theatrical, I feel like casting a drag queen could be the answer to turn up the heat on Hades in this production.
One Last Hope
Another thing that could use some improvement is the staging of the battles. Each act has a massive fight with mythological creatures, and they are marquee moments in the film. So in order to effectively translate them to the stage, they need some serious pizzazz to really do them justice. While the dance choreography that accompanied the Hydra and the Titans battles were on point and the puppets created for the production were top-notch (even though it would have been cool to see more Hydra heads or a variety of Titans), the fight choreography and storytelling elements of these battles were unclear and largely ambiguous.
Many in the audience know the visual of a Hyrda's head being cut off and two more growing back in its place, but Lear DeVessonet's direction or possibly Chase Brock and Tanisha Scott's choreography in this scene fails to capitalize on what could be an incredible visual with ensemble members attempting to overpower the hero. The same goes for the Titans' battle in Act II, but maybe the whole "Great Bolts of Thunder" number could use a revamp to tighten things up and make the events that unfold more understandable.
Despite all the criticism though, "Disney's Hercules: The Mythical Musical Adventure" is an energetic and charming production that makes for an enjoyable night at the theater. It's not quite as legendary as the original Heracles, but with a few adjustments to the way some elements of the story are presented (and maybe a boost to the budget), this show could be just as beloved as the other Disney classics that have graced stages around the world over the years.
"Hercules" is playing at the Paper Mill Playhouse until March 19, 2023.
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