theater review

Theater Review: The Strengths and Weaknesses of a Free Public Hercules

From the Public Theater’s staging of Hercules, at the Delacorte. Photo: Joan Marcus

People are psyched about Hercules. I almost got trampled twice while making my way up the packed paths to the Delacorte, where the line for the bar was long with very, very excited men about my age, one wearing a Hercules-themed ball cap with Mickey Mouse ears, practically all buying double pours of rosé. It’s that time of year again — the time when I feel a little stranded amid the heaving enthusiasm of the audience for a show from Public Works, the Public Theater’s year-round initiative of theater and theater education by, with, and for local communities, which culminates in a huge, pageant-style production in the park, starring a few professional actors and hundreds of local citizens. This year, as Laurie Woolery — the director of Public Works, who runs the program along with its founder, Lear deBessonet — told the crowd, the youngest member of the ensemble is 5, the eldest somewhere in their 80s. There’s a men’s modern dance troupe participating, and a high-school marching band. There are giant puppets, sparkly cardboard-cutout lightning bolts, and a handful of peppy new songs, added by composer Alan Menken and lyricist David Zippel to the catchy, if thin, score of the 1997 animated film. In the spirit of Public Works, there’s also a hurricane high tide of frothy, feel-good exuberance bearing the whole thing along.

It seems grinchy to resist getting swept up in it. After all, the mission of Public Works is good as gold and better, and I’m still not entirely convinced that the results call for traditional criticism. What the bright, earnest productions lack in nuance, they make up for in goodwill, and that’s not nothing. If I’ve balked in the past, perhaps it’s because Public Works has often taken on Shakespeare, and it’s been hard to see those plays scrubbed clean and fashioned into the theatrical equivalent of a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper. This time, the material fully suits the message. Hercules may not be the most complex of Disney’s animated features (no, this Herc isn’t the son of serial-seducer Zeus and yet another ill-used mortal woman, but the legitimate divine offspring of Zeus and Hera; and no, he isn’t eventually murdered via poison shirt by his jealous wife), but it’s got zip and charm to it. In fact, there’s something almost impressive about the way it manages to start with a myth that’s completely devoid of inner conflict and all about external feats of super-strength, and graft onto it the theme of every Disney movie in the history of time: I’m a misfit. Where do I belong?

Here, Jelani Alladin (alum of Frozen on Broadway) plays the muscly, sweetly naïve protagonist with sunny, playful appeal. He’s got a milewide smile and a lovely, clear voice, and deBessonet, back behind the bullhorn as director, does right not to dress up his big solo “Go the Distance” (it almost snagged a Best Original Song Oscar in ’97, but unfortunately, Titanic also came out that year). She leaves him alone in the center of Dane Laffrey’s open, column-abutted set, to sing his little heart out, and he does.

Due to some mismanaged malevolence way back in his babyhood, this Hercules used to be a god but has grown up a mortal, with bland, well-meaning human parents (Shannon Rhett and Arianne Recto). His real mom and dad, Zeus and Hera — Michael Roberts and Tar-Shay Margaret Williams, looking fabulous in two of the deliciously campy, sequin-studded looks that costume designer Andrea Hood has created for the Greek pantheon — love him from afar, but won’t take him back. Among mortals, they tell their son, only heroes have seen Mount Olympus. So, young Herc sets out to become one of those. In his corner are a pair of cynics who need to find their belief again — a washed-up trainer named Phil (James Monroe Iglehart, a former Genie in Aladdin on Broadway) and a smart-talking con artist, Megara, or Meg for short (Krysta Rodriguez) — and facing him from across the ring is the sneering, blue-haired lord of the underworld, Hades (Roger Bart), along with a requisite pair of bumbling sidekicks, Pain (Nelson Chimilio) and Panic (Jeff Hiller).

While it’s filled with the kind of wholesome, groan-inducing zingers that Disney pretty nearly trademarked in the ’90s, Kristoffer Diaz’s book makes you realize just how fully Hercules’s Broadway brothers and sisters depend on their spectacle for effect. DeBessonet — along with Hood, who’s bravely putting clothes on hundreds of bodies, and puppet designer James Ortiz — goes for homespun magic, which is often charming in its own right, but doesn’t exactly mask the sentimental, shticky slightness of the material. There’s a children’s-theater vibe to the storytelling, which is packed with lessons about true heroism being in your heart, and which depends on old jokes for most of its humor and tropes for most of its characters. Meg and Hercules’s interactions feel particularly tired: Sure, no one wants a damsel in distress, but I’m starting to be equally bored by the sharp-tongued, demonstratively self-sufficient, “I don’t need saving” heroine. Whatever the next phase of female protagonist is, I’m ready for it.

Still, the show’s strength is that it knows itself: It’s happily punching in the lightweight division. Even with the additional songs, Hercules runs a crisp 90 minutes, and deBessonet and choreographer Chase Brock keep the enormous ensemble busy and buoyant throughout. Iglehart enjoyably channels Jimmy Durante in Phil’s training-montage song (“One Last Hope”), and Bart (who provided the singing voice for young Herc in the original Disney film) looks to be having tons of fun as the show’s fast-talking villain. The muses — the story’s divine narrators, headed up by Ramona Keller, Rema Webb, and Tamika Lawrence — sing to rattle Olympus, and the whole company readily channels the unfailing upbeatness for which Public Works has become known. Hercules is a big party with the best intentions, and though, when it comes to theater, I prefer complexity, I also, especially these days, applaud kindness.

Hercules is at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park through September 8. (Click here for a post that includes a guide to the ticket lottery.)

Theater Review: The Strengths of a Free Public Hercules