The bare-bones but thrilling show has a young and energetic Jelani Alladin as Hercules, Krysta Rodriguez (Smash) as the smart and sassy Meg and Robert Bart who was the singing voice of Hercules in the animated film, taking on the villainous Hades.
It is directed by Lear deBessonet and presented as part of the Public Theater’s Public Works programme(meaning over 200 community members as part of the production, in addition to the pros in larger roles).
It is taking place at the outdoor Delacorte Theater in Central Park which adds to the magical ambiance and you don’t have to squint too hard to imagine you’re in an Ancient Greece amphitheater.
There is no planned transfer and Disney is not planning on mounting a longer run.
But if this works, they will look for ways to go the distance, whether that means a Broadway version or as a key to what they can do with an inevitably forthcoming live-action film adaptation. (Disney was not involved in this production but you know they are paying attention.)
Below, four things this joyful edition does right for Disney and Co. to keep in mind going forward.
1. No Pegasus
Inevitably, this theatrical production isn’t a line-for-line recreation of the animated movie. Good. While it certainly follows the same story, it’s allowed to become its own thing, which is something Disney has struggled with allowing in the past with some of its beloved properties, particularly with its live-action updates. The spirit of Herc is alive and well here, but by changing a few plot points and characters (no Pegasus, more Meg) it’s transformed into something new. Breathe, Disney. It’s going to be OK.
2. Megara rocks
Meg — who sold her soul to Hades to free her boyfriend and now is Done With Men — was always one of the more feminist “princesses” in the Disney animated canon. Here, she is happily updated even more, with a new number “Forget About It” and a couple truly excellent one-liners about dummy guys. “What would I do in a world without men?” she sings as Hercules ignores her wishes and fights off a monster. “I would do as I please, let me say that again,” she cracks to loud audience cheers. Sometimes adapting characters from others times to fit the present day can feel shoehorned in, but this time it’s a welcome delight and something Disney could easily push forward even more.
P.S.: Her iconic number “I Won’t Say I’m In Love” continues to rule, and judging by the sustained cheers as soon as she got out the first line in the song, continues to hold a very special place in the hearts of many, many fans.
3. The music rules
Cards on the table: The gospel-infused original soundtrack is one of my Disney faves. This production keeps all the numbers from the animated film (you go, girl) AND ADDS FIVE MORE ALAN MENKEN/DAVID ZIPPEL ORIGINALS!!!
Of the new music, the best are the aforementioned Megara number (“Forget About It”) as well as a jazzy, catchy new song for Hades, “A Cool Day in Hell,” which is a great showcase for Roger Bart. Bart is having the *most* fun playing Hades here, and everyone was having a total blast watch him be so over the top. Even murderous rulers of the underworld need their showstoppers.
4. Resonant themes abound
One of the biggest changes from the animated film is the ending; in this version the townspeople join together with Hercules to fight off the titans Hades has released. It’s obviously a great addition for this Public Works production, which — along with bringing together a diverse cast with people ranging from five to 80-something — focuses its messaging on community and belonging. But I was also struck with just how timely it all felt. (“You’re a celebrity, not a hero!” Zeus says at one point to Hercules, to applause.)
It’s true that anytime someone does something nice these days it feels like a pointed political statement, but there was clearly something in the outdoor air as the power of joining together was highlighted. “This made me want to go volunteer for Elizabeth Warren!” one woman remarked excitedly after the show.
Lady, I get it. -/TISG