HERCULES Has Just Enough Strength to Match Its Heart — Review
Forty-eight minutes is the length of time from New York’s Penn Station to Millburn, New Jersey, on the NJ Transit. That’s all the time you need to get your latest dose of some true Disney wonderment at Paper Mill Playhouse. Alan Menken and David Zippel’s Hercules is the newest film-to-stage adaptation brought to us with all of its Grecian glory by director Lear deBessonet.
Based on the beloved animated film of the same name, the musical had its stage premiere in 2019 at the Public’s Delacorte Theatre in Central Park as part of the annual Public Works program. If you are unfamiliar with the plot, as the lovely couple seated in front of me were, let me catch you up to speed real quick. Hercules, born to the gods Zeus and Hera, grows up in the mortal world after Hades banishes him as an infant to Earth. Once learning his true destiny, he goes on a hero’s quest to prove his strength and make his way home to Mount Olympus, all with the help of that classic Menken score with such hits as “Zero To Hero,” “I Won’t Say (I’m In Love),” and “Go the Distance.”
Bradley Gibson glistens in the role of Hercules, bringing a sense of vulnerability and charm to the well-known part. His loveable perkiness shines through with Robert Horn and Kwame Kwei-Armah’s updated and, at many points, comical book. The always delightful Isabelle McCalla’s Megara adds depth and sass and is a true force to be reckoned with on that stage. James Monroe Iglehart delivers yet again as the loveable Disney sidekick Phil, Hercules’ trainer. His charisma is infectious, and paired with Chase Brock and Tanisha Scott’s choreography makes for an incredible rendition of “One Last Hope” that turned out to be one of my favorite numbers of the night.
This entire review would be moot if I did not praise The Muses, played by the fabulous Charity Angél Dawson, Tiffany Mann, Anastacia McCleskey, Destinee Rea, and Rashidra Scott. To call this group electrifying would be an understatement. From the very first chords to the final bows, this Greek chorus was everything you could wish for and the epitome of true theatrical talent.
DeBessonet directs a truly massive production with her 34-person cast. In some of the larger numbers, I felt a lack of energy at times that I wish was refocused in the rehearsal room. Kwei-Armah and Horn are the perfect team for a pun-filled book that takes the original source material and flies. Who else is going to give you lines such as “He’s Poseid-himself,” which at times might be groan-inducing, still really adds to the heart.
Where some retooling could work would be the end of the second act. t feels as if the writers tried to tie up the story too quickly; letting it breathe and perhaps the addition of a new song or two will work wonders. Brock and Scott’s choreography as a whole could use some elevation in the larger dance numbers to make them grander. It's no doubt that “Friend Like Me” in Aladdin is a true Broadway showstopper and I yearn for more wow moments, especially in some of the more popular songs.
Dane Laffrey's scenic design is astonishing. Utilizing looming Greek columns that rotate quickly, the versatile set is among the standouts of the night. Pair it with Emilio Sosa’s colorful but plain costume design, and Jeff Croiter’s dazzling lighting, and you have a recipe for success. Puppet designer James Ortiz, who delivered us our beloved Milky White earlier this season, knocks it out of the park with inventive designs that elevate the more fantastical elements of the piece.
This skilled creative team is extremely in demand, with projects happening all over Midtown Manhattan as I write this. Zippel’s Bad Cinderella is currently in previews; Horn’s new musical comedy Shucked begins performances next week; and deBessonet’s critically lauded Into The Woods just launched its national tour this week in Washington DC. If the whole team could focus on production with no distractions, I reckon they will find success.
Whether Disney has struck gold at the same level as when Newsies premiered over a decade ago at Paper Mill remains to be seen, however. This production can certainly go the distance (sorry I had to!!) as it heads to Germany next year, and I imagine we might see it back in the States sometime in the near future. You just let me know when I can see the Muses together again, and you can bet that Grecian urn I will be there.
Hercules is now in performance at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey, through March 19. For tickets and more information, visit here.