BWW Review: Public Works' Adaptation of Disney's HERCULES Celebrates New Yorkers Via Greek Mythology
Director Lear deBessonet creates another joyous pageant at Central Park's Delacorte
While the name Walt Disney will certainly be familiar to all those arriving at the Delacorte for Public Works' stage adaptation of the 1997 animated musical feature Hercules, hopefully a good deal of them will leave Central Park remembering the name Lear deBessonet.
It's deBessonet who founded The Public Theater's Public Works program in 2013 and placed over 200 performers on the Delacorte stage - a mixture of professionals and amateurs - to premiere a musical adaptation of Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST that emphasized pageantry and community spirit.
With Laurie Woolery serving as the company's director, deBessonet has conceived and directed all but two of Public Works' six Delacorte productions, mostly Shakespeare adaptations, and now returns to helm the company's first show based on a contemporary musical film.
The formula remains as it always was. A handful of Equity actors (eight in this case) play leading roles while the rest of the cast (ages 5 through late 80s) is made up of clients from social service organizations from throughout the five boroughs (Brownsville Recreation Center, Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education, Center for Family Life in Sunset Park, Children's Aid, Domestic Workers United, DreamYard, The Fortune Society and Military Resilience Foundation). Add to the mix featured moments for local performing arts organizations (for Hercules it's a choir supplied by Broadway Inspirational Voices, the male dance troupe 10 Hairy Legs and the Passaic High School Marching Band) and you have a joyous overload of fun that may take place in ancient Greece but is distinctively New York flavored.
That distinctive blend is emphasized by bookwriter Kristoffer Diaz's bright and comical adaptation of the multi-authored screenplay which is not only peppered with local references and inside jokes (a clever HAMILTON bit brings down the house), but tinkers with the storytelling to stress how community members, when banding together, can heroically conquer the hardships of their everyday lives. A major theme voiced in the narrative is the difference between a hero and a celebrity.
The ancient Greek setting is suggested simply by designer Dane Laffrey with two trios of columns framing an open space that provides a majestic view of Central Park's Belvedere Castle, across the pond.
As in the film, the plot is narrated by a snazzy gospel-singing quintet of muses (terrific work by Ramona Keller, Brianna Cabrera, Rema Webb, Tamika Lawrence and Tieisha Thomas) who introduce us to our hero-to-be, Hercules (wonderfully earnest Jelani Alladin, who sports a lovely singing voice).
The title fellow has grown up unaware that he was born a god, the child of Zeus (Michael Roberts) and Hera (Tar-Shay Margaret Williams), because a botched attempt on his life as an infant left him mortal and therefore no longer permitted to reside with the other gods on Mount Olympus.
That botched attempt was arranged by Hades (very funny Roger Bart, as an erudite wise-cracker) after learning from three fates (Hasaan Bailey, Isabelle Romero and Kelly Campbell) that in eighteen years he will have an opportunity to conquer Olympus that only Hercules can thwart.
The incomplete job was bumbled by his two henchmen, Pain (Nelson Chimilio) and Panic (Jeff Hiller). Already established as one of New York theatre's premiere clowns, Hiller is uproariously funny in this one, playing a squeaky-voiced innocent dolt and squeezing big laughs from seemingly innocuous lines.
James Monroe Iglehart also generates his share of laughs playing Philoctetes, a gyro salesman who also trains heroes, with a lot of outer-boroughs moxie. (At times I'd swear he was doing a bit of Jimmy Durante.)
When Hercules learns of his true lineage, and that he can return to Olympus by becoming a hero, he tries his hand at rescuing a woman from an ogre (one of designer James Ortiz's marvelous collection of stage-filling puppets), but she turns out to be the tough and resourceful Megara (Krysta Rodriguez, exuding brash sarcasm and a solid belt), who proudly states she doesn't need a man's help, making the inexperienced Hercules totally googly-eyed over her.
With Megara being the only major female character in the story, there seems to be an extra effort to expand her role into something more than a romantic interest, emphasizing that it's not enough for Hercules to love her; he has to respect her.
Her character-driven number, "Forget About It," where she rolls her eyes at the childish ways men try to impress women, is a highlight of the new batch of songs composer Alan Menken and lyricist David Zippel have added to their bouncy and buoyant film score. Another is a slitheringly bluesy song and dance for Hades, "A Cool Day In Hell," choreographed by Chase Brock with a vaudevillian flare.
A veteran of Public Works productions, Brock does a great job of providing enjoyable routines for a large ensemble made up of non-professionals who attend rehearsals while caring for their families and working at their jobs. The fact that these are typical New Yorkers, our neighbors and friends, being showcased on this historic stage (and dressed fabulously in flashy garb by designer Andrea Hood) provides Hercules, and all Public Works productions, with a celebratory spirit worthy of our cheers and support.