‘Hercules’ review: Free Disney musical goes the distance

Jelani Alladin, foreground, and the company of The Public Theater's free Public Works musical adaptation of
Jelani Alladin, foreground, and the company of The Public Theater’s free Public Works musical adaptation of “Hercules.” Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

‘Hercules’ runs at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park through Sunday. publictheater.org.

Forget about “Hamilton.” The hottest ticket in town — at least for the next few days — is the spunky and warmhearted stage adaptation of the 1997 Disney animated film musical “Hercules.”

The show is being performed for free at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater as part of the Public Theater’s seven-year-old Public Works series in which appropriately 200 New Yorkers join together with Broadway actors to present massive musical pageants that are loosely based on Classical works.

The most successful Public Works production to date has been “Twelfth Night,” which premiered in 2016 and was brought back in 2018 for an extended run as an official Shakespeare in the Park selection.  

“Hercules” marks a rare — perhaps once-in-a-lifetime — joint venture between Off-Broadway’s adventurous Public Theater and the commercial giant Disney Theatricals. It’s the equivalent of “Hair” and “Hamilton” meeting up with “Beauty and the Beast” and “Frozen.”

For the occasion, composer Alan Menken (“Beauty and the Beast,” “Little Shop of Horrors”) and lyricist David Zippel (“City of Angels”), who penned the songs in the original film, have essentially doubled the size of the score — although their new stuff is far from being on par with such pop-gospel gems as “Go the Distance,” “The Gospel Truth,” “I Won’t Say (I’m In Love)” and “Zero to Hero.” Of course, that is always the case with Disney’s stage musicals.

Capturing the lighthearted tone of the film (which gently poked fun at Disney commercialism), Kristoffer Diaz’s new book features countless zingers and inside jokes (my favorite being when Hercules is confused with Hercules Mulligan from “Hamilton”). Diaz also tries to deliver an underlying moral on the difference between being a hero and a celebrity. However, Diaz may have gone too far in changing around some of the original sequencing, which has made the second half of the show very messy.

The cast of professionals includes a fresh-faced Jelani Alladin (“Frozen”) as Hercules, an unapologetically flamboyant and blue-haired Roger Bart (who sang “Go the Distance” in the original film) as the villainous Hades, a pumped-up James Monroe Iglehart (“Aladdin”) as Hercules’ sidekick trainer Philoctetes and a tough Krysta Rodriguez (“Smash”) as Hercules’ jaded love interest, Megara. 

The company of The Public Theater's free Public Works musical adaptation of "Hercules." 
The company of The Public Theater’s free Public Works musical adaptation of "Hercules."  Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

They are joined by countless members of the Broadway Inspirational Voices choir, the 10 Hairy Legs dance troupe, the Passaic High School Marching Band and community organizations such as Brownsville Recreation Center, The Fortune Society, Military Resilience Foundation, Children’s Aid and Domestic Workers United.

The 100-minute production (directed by Lear deBessonet, with choreography by Chase Brock) is breezy, visually flashy and meaningfully inclusive. Personally, I prefer it over many of the shows that Disney has brought to Broadway over the past 25 years.

By the time of the finale, the combined cast fills the stage and aisles of the 1,800-seat venue. I am hard pressed to think of a better way for New Yorkers en masse to end the summer on a high note.