In the 1997 Disney animated musical “Hercules,” the title character goes, to quote one of its most catchy lyrics, from “Zero to Hero.” The film’s stage adaptation, on the other hand, seems to have gone in the opposite direction.
In the summer of 2019, “Hercules” debuted at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park as part of the Public Theatre’s Public Works series, with 200 New Yorkers joining professional actors in a refreshingly low-key and enjoyable pageant-style presentation.
A largely reworked, redesigned, recast, and expanded version of “Hercules” is now being produced at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey, in what originally looked like a tryout for an eventual Broadway run. After all, a decade ago, the stage version of “Newsies” premiered at Paper Mill and then quickly transferred to Broadway.
The Paper Mill production (directed by Lear deBessonet, who helmed the Central Park production and the recent Broadway revival of “Into the Woods”) is a clunky, bewildering embarrassment in which the celebratory spirit of the earlier production has gotten totally lost. It lacks the artistry of Disney’s stage version of “The Lion King,” the razzle-dazzle showmanship of “Aladdin” and “Newsies,” or even the minimal competency of “Beauty and the Beast.”
Bradley Gibson (“The Lion King”) plays Hercules like an ensemble member who was asked to take over the role at the last minute. Tony winner Shuler Hensley (recently of “The Music Man”) lacks impact as the villainous Hades. Tony winner James Monroe Iglehart (“Aladdin”) is wasted as the sidekick trainer Phil (who has somehow been reconceived as a struggling nightclub owner). The scene-stealers end up being the five women who comprise the stylish Greek chorus of Muses. Isabelle McCalla is nicely vulnerable as Hercules’ love interest Meg.
Visually, the production looks cheap and garish, with costumes and puppets that look like they belong in a Halloween parade at Disney World. The fight sequences between Hercules and the monstrous titans are underwhelming, and the dance choreography is not unlike the march routines of a high school color guard.
The new book by Robert Horn (“Tootsie”) and Kwame Kwei-Armah is an unending parade of unfunny one-liners, mostly riffing on phrases like “Greek tragedy” and “godparents.” Alan Menken and David Zippel’s new songs are so inferior to the pop-gospel ones they wrote a quarter of a century ago (including the memorable anthem “Go the Distance”) that they might as well have been written by different people.
Unlike the Fates in “Hercules,” I can’t predict the future – but I nevertheless feel pretty confident in predicting that “Hercules” will not be going to Broadway anytime soon. It is apparently heading to Germany next instead. Auf Wiedersehen, “Hercules”!
“Hercules” runs through March 19 at Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn, New Jersey, papermill.org.