“What makes a hero?” are the first words in “Hercules,” the playful and sweet-spirited stage production based on the 1997 animated Disney film premiering in Central Park as part of the Pubic Theater’s Public Works program. Now tweaked for 2019 sensibilities, it’s a smart, funny and tuneful show that is also part pageant, complete with a marching band, an epic kick line and a cityscape populated with plenty of New Yorkers.
The scope and local involvement inherent in Public Works means this stage show’s future probably lies more in community-centric productions rather than on Broadway. The emotional impact of the show and its grading-on-a-curve kindness rests on this connection — not unlike the work Cornerstone Theater Company has done for decades. Minus that, though, it would still have many pleasures, just not the same purpose.
Lear Debessonet directs an all-ages cast of some 200 — mostly culled from community organizations from the five boroughs — with efficiency, energy and a keen sense of traffic control, allowing many to have their moments in the spotlight.
Playwright Kristoffer Diaz (“The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity”) neatly adapts the screenplay and keeps the 90-minute narrative brisk as it follows half-god, half-mortal Hercules, here son of Zeus and Hera, as he must prove himself a hero to regain his fully-divine status.
Diaz further punches up and updates the sassy script sprinkled with Greek reference, musical insider nods and realness. When Hercules asks how can he show his heroic skills, a citizen snaps, “Can you help me find affordable housing?” Meanwhile, Hercules’ love interested Megara (Krysta Rodriguez) no longer is a faux-albeit-feisty damsel but rather someone who can take care of herself; and to answer the show’s opening question: Heroism comes from a united, activist hoi polloi battling demons and devils and taking control of its own destiny.
Diaz’s adaptation also addresses some stage realities: The flying horse Pegasus is cut; Herc’s accidental chaos is in the marketplace is minimal; and Hercules is not the only hero who steps up.
Many near-millennials who grew up with the film are likely to applaud, as the opening night crowd did, the first few notes from movie tunes such as “Zero to Hero,” “I Won’t Say (I’m in Love)” and the Oscar-nominated “Go the Distance.” But new songs by composer Alan Menken and lyricist David Zippel also delight, especially the jazzy “A Cool Day in Hell,” the anti-date-night number “Forget About It” and the ever-swelling “To Be a Human.” As even a villain admits after one song, “It’s an objectively catchy tune.”
In the end, the show rises or falls on the charisma its lead, and in Jelani Alladin (who originated the role of Kristoff in Broadway’s “Frozen”) the show has found a hero that’s also huggable. With a million-watt smile, Alladin’s Herc is charming, funny and emotionally vulnerable. This Herc is human to the core.
Roger Bart, who sang the role of Hercules in the animated film, now has a hell of a good time as the villainous Hades, especially during his cool blue-hot rages. (The show also completes this year’s musical Underworld trifecta along with “Beetlejuice” and “Hadestown”).
Rodriguez’s Meg counterbalances Hercules’ alternating naïveté and swagger with snap that’s still sexy. As Hercules’ personal trainer Phil, James Monroe Iglehart (“Aladdin”) finds his own crusty, exasperating voice, while Jeff Hiller finds comic gold in reactions as Hades’ go-fer Panic. And Ramona Keller, Rema Webb and Tamika Lawrence (along with Brianna Cabrera and Tieisha Thomas) lead their choral commentary with killer gospel voices.
Special nods go to James Ortiz’s puppetry designs and Andrea Hood’s costume choices, which show wit as well as bling — including Phil’s track suit, Herc’s fancy footwear and especially Meg’s hot leather jacket and pants, which signal strength and daring, especially next to the guy in a toga.