In an age where superheroes reign supreme thanks to a successful, multibillion dollar Marvel movies run, New York City’s Public Theater’s Public Works chose to take it back, way back, in terms of an O.G. superhero, in their delightful, multiracial, community-fueled production of Disney’s animated 1997 musical Hercules.
While the film Hercules only flirted with African-American music and culture—the muses who were the “Greek chorus” throughout the film were patterned after classic, Motown-style black ‘50s girl groups—this version of ancient Greece and the Greco-Roman gods features quite a few black, Asian and Latinx people, including Jelani Alladin as the titular teenaged Hercules, and, of course—all five of the doo-wopping muses are...sistas with voices.
As for the plot, everyone should know the story (or…if not, here’s the not-quite-accurate, 10-cent, Disney, safe-for-kids version): Son of Greek gods Zeus (Michael Roberts) and Hera (Tar-Shay Margaret Williams), Hercules is born on Mt. Olympus, destined to join the pantheon of the omniscient until a nefarious plot by Hades (played by the original singing voice of Disney’s Hercules, Roger Bart), god of the underworld, renders the tot “human”…but because the plan was executed by a pair of flunky half-wits, Pain (Nelson Chimilo) and Panic (Jeff Hiller), they kind of forget to “kill” human Hercules, who due to their bungling maintains his superhero strength despite being mortal. Hijinks ensue as Hercules learns what it truly means to be a hero in his efforts to become immortal.
The production, directed by Lear deBessonet with the book by Kristoffer Diaz, is lively, colorful, and delightfully over-the-top (it is based on a cartoon, after all, so try not to be stressed when Hercules occasionally bursts into tears over various infractions), and the multiethnic casting gives fresh life to a very ’90s musical. (Proud to report that “Go the Distance” is still a pretty great “I want” Disney ballad and holds up well next to “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid, arguably the best version of this song in the Disney canon.) What transpires over about 100 minutes (there is no intermission), is a beautiful, family-friendly revelation with a great message about the human condition, heroism and doing the right thing.
Oh, and an entire marching band bursts in at one point during the climax. Because? Why not? This was very much a “kitchen sink” production—why have a choir when you can have a bigger choir and a doo-wop group and a large, community-based ensemble? Why have an orchestra when you can have both orchestra and marching band! And why just have eleventy-billion costume changes when you can do those changes alongside gigantic puppet creatures for Hercules to fight? This play did the absolute most...in a good way.
Also, there is just something delightful in hearing so many jokes about modern American culture reimagined in ancient Greece that were featured in the film—gyros carts, “Air” Herc tennis shoes, celebrity culture, etc.—as well as Tony Award-winning actor James Monroe Iglehart (best known for playing the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin on Broadway) doing a classic New “Yawk” accent while playing superhero trainer, Phil (originally played by Italian-American actor Danny DeVito in the film).
Other standouts include, Krysta Rodriguez as the seasoned, saucy and thoroughly modern Megara, Hercules’ initially reluctant love interest; the five muses lead by Vivian Jett Brown, who caused screams literally every time she and the other muses graced the stage in their constantly changing, glittery outfits; and, obviously, the original singing voice of Hercules, Bart, as Hades, who is as good, if not better in the smarmy role originated by James Woods in the film. Plus, he gets a pretty hot song in “A Cool Day in Hell,” not featured in the film.
Hercules, which is being performed at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park through Sunday, Sept. 8, is part of the Public Theater’s Public Works productions that feature numerous community members from the New York City era, some of whom were on stage for the first time. Tickets are free, two per person, via a digital lottery hosted by TodayTix. For more information, check out PublicTheater.org.