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Theatre Review by Howard Miller - September 3, 2019

Jelani Alladin and the Company
Photo by Joan Marcus

"Disney-in-the-Park" doesn't quite have the same ring as "Shakespeare-in-the-Park," but that didn't seem to matter much to last night's wildly enthusiastic audience filling every single seat at the open-air Delacorte Theater in Central Park for Hercules, the Public Theater's Public Works' adaptation of the 1997 animated musical Disney film of the same title.

Hercules, directed by Lear deBessonet who dauntlessly herds a cast of 200, may not represent the absolute best of the seven seasons of end-of-summer Public Works productions; that honor, in my view, would go to last year's joyful rendition of Kwame Kwei-Armah and Shaina Taub's revived and revised musicalization of Twelfth Night. But deBessonet and the creative team get at least two things wonderfully right, so that scrabbling for one of the remaining free tickets would be well worth the effort before the production closes at the end of this week.

To begin with, Hercules represents the epitome of community outreach and collaboration. The stage is filled to bursting with a teeming horde of professional and amateur performers ranging in age five to 80, representing all five boroughs of New York City in all their diversity. Heck, there's even a hand of friendship proffered across the Hudson when the Passaic High School Marching Band joins the mayhem as if they had taken a wrong turn from a production of The Music Man.

The mainstay talent includes some terrific performances in key roles, particularly Jelani Alladin as Hercules, Krysta Rodriguez as Meg, Roger Bart as Hades, James Monroe Iglehart as Phil, and a delightfully dorky turn by Jeff Hiller as Panic, one of Hades's minions. And any lack among the non-pros is more than made up by the palpable enthusiasm and love they exude by the unending bucketful. Thumbs up to choreographer Chase Brock who keeps everyone moving without tripping over one another. Composer Alan Menken and lyricist David Zippel have provided a catchy score that incorporates the numbers they wrote for the film and gives us a few new tunes to enhance the goings-on.

The second real strength of the production lies with Kristoffer Diaz's book for the stage show, originally written for the Disney film by a team of five screenwriters who appear to have fallen asleep while reading a Cliffs Notes study guide on Greek mythology and came up with a version of the story of Hercules that borrows heavily from a variety of different mythical tales. A succinct rendering of the plot would be this: Hercules has to learn what it means to be a hero, decidedly not the same as being a celebrity as a key line in the script reminds him and us. Only then can he regain his status as a god after being turned into a mortal as an infant and deposited in Greece to die or to fend for himself, thanks to a power-grabbing plot hatched by Hades.

Movie-to-stage adaptions don't always work out too well, especially when the adaptor cleaves to the original screenplay as if it were the tablets of the Ten Commandments. The first fifteen minutes or so of Hercules are perhaps the weakest in this respect. Exuberant performances by a gospel choir dressed in black robes and by the show's snazzy five Muses (the very definition of "sparkle" thanks to Andrea Hood's eye-popping costumes) are not enough to overcome the very obvious exposition they are there to provide. But things take a turn for the better once Phil arrives on the scene and takes Hercules under his wing. In the hands of James Monroe Iglehart, and presumably with the encouragement of the writer and the director, Phil becomes a genuine and caring mentor to Hercules. Similarly, Krysta Rodriguez's Meg is no longer a version of Lola from Damn Yankees but is now a competent, confident, and self-aware woman. Between Phil and Meg, and with the support of the many friends he has made along the way, Hercules finally learns to become that hero.

I have no idea whether the Public or Disney has plans to continue shaping Hercules into a full-blown Broadway production. But thanks to the ways in which it has been rethought, there is a lot of potential. If so, I'd love to see them retain the services of James Ortiz, who has contributed some outstanding mythical monster puppets for Hercules to wrestle with, especially the Hydra. Oh, and please find a way to bring Pegasus into the story. I missed him.

Through September 8
The Delacorte Theater, Central Park - Enter at 81st Street & Central Park West or 79th Street & Fifth Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: