by Adam Cohen . . .
There’s a fine line with Disney’s adaptations of its animated musicals to the stage. Of the cannon, only “Lion King” has successfully fully made the leap from two dimensional. Paper Mill Playhouse and Disney’s stab at updating the big screen version of “Hercules” has wonderful elements, many strong performances, a solid book, but feels under baked in battle for audience dollars. There’s clear appeal for families, especially boys which is admirable.
If any director other than Julie Taymor were to shape and give “Hercules” heart it would be Lear deBessonet who displayed a deft, creative touch with the recent Encores and Broadway production of “Into The Woods.” Where she used minimalism to great effect, “Hercules” is often adrift with too much on stage with no conclusive clear path. The two battle scenes are fuzzily choreographed leaving the actors and puppeteers adrift and audience unimpressed.
The new musical is based upon Disney’s animated big screen release from 1997, utilizing the more prominent songs by Alan Menken and David Zippel (Zero to Hero, Go The Distance, I Won’t Say) while adding new ones for this production. Oddly the old songs are fussily used – not dynamically rendered when the audience should be craving them. Robert Horn and Kwame Kewei-Armah wrote the often-humorous book. They factor in civil engagement, the value of failure, and reinforce Meg’s go it alone tone.
Hercules the offspring of Zeus (Dennis Stowe) and Hera (Kristen-Faith Oei) is rendered almost mortal by a world conquering minded Hades (Shuler Hensley) and his minions Pain and Panic (Ben Roseberry and Jeff Blumenkrantz). Banished to earth Hercules is adopted and raised by kind-hearted Despina (Kathryn Allison), who comes to realize that the boy possesses superhuman strength.
As a young man (Bradley Gibson – mega kilowatt smile and action hero body), Hercules is a nice innocent who doesn’t know his own strength. But he’s also kind of boring. Good thing – he’s quickly surrounded by the gifted trainer of heroes Phil (James Monroe Iglehart) and seduced by Hades’ sidekick Meg (Isabelle McCalla). And his desire to be a god and hang on Olympus doesn’t seem that appealing as Zeus, Hera and the Olympians are stiffs prone to speechifying in uncomfortable looking costumes. Earth has way more appeal especially with Iglehart and McCalla.
Hercules’ strongest assets are performers like Iglehart and McCalla and the puppet monsters by James Ortiz are cool looking (not too scary for the tots). McCalla, Blumenkrantz, Roseberry and Hensley make the most of the book – easily landing the many layered gags and one-liners. Iglehart, a gifted, clever performer who slayed in “Aladdin,” “Hamilton”, and “Freestyle Love Supreme” makes the most of an under-written part, especially with his weak Act Two opener. That he’s given two encores is a testament to his selling the number and his nimble performance. It often feels like he’s performing CPR to stoke more energy into the too anodyne Hercules. McCalla’s Meg is wry and the most rounded character. She’s got purpose and poise, nailing her songs. Too bad the show isn’t called “Meg.” Hensley brings a nice laconic energy to Hades. Saddled with the cartoon costume and flash paper fire, one desires more malevolence and mayhem in the characterization.
The creators lean heavily on the Greek chorus singing muses. Anastacia McCleskey, Destinee Rea, Charity Angel Dawson, Tiffany Mann and Rashidra Scott render the harmonies with brisk enthusiasm and dynamic movement. They are supremely talented hemmed in bombastic competition with the orchestra. Often, they comment on action we’ve just seen – handy in a complicated scenery switch but narratively stultifying. They are best used to comment and advance things. The balance hasn’t quite been met in fully utilizing their comedic possibilities and vocal gifts.
As in most Greek dramas, the heroics are rendered off stage. This distances the audience from Gibson’s Hercules. We’re told, not shown many of his feats of strength and heroism. While he’s an agile dancer, and a serviceable actor and singer, his Hercules is rendered a nice enough guy. Some more personality (ego, sense of his body’s appeal) would do the show a lot of good and allow Hercules to actually be heroic. The fight choreography by Chase Brock and Tanisha Scot is muddled and unconclusive – we never actually see Hercules defeat the monsters. And the rescue climax of Meg (cleverly done with a parachute shaken by cast versus fog) is all too quick.
The production values are first-rate. With terrific lighting effects by Jeff Croiter and special effects by Jeremy Chernick. Emilio Sosa offers ornate costumes.
While Disney has announced a future production in Germany, the shows strengths need to be amplified. The battles need to be conclusive, and Hercules shown defeating the monsters. The muses more artfully utilized. And Hercules should be truly heroic versus a nice muscular dude with a great smile.
Performances continue through March 19th. Tickets and more information at papermill.org