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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Disney's Hercules
Paper Mill Playhouse
Review by Bob Rendell

Isabelle McCalla and Bradley Gibson
Photo by Jeremy Daniel
The Paper Mill Playhouse Hercules is a large scale stage adaptation of the 1997 Disney animated movie, with visually spectacular design and viscerally thrilling sound in its depiction of the Fates, Cyclops, and Titans. In sequences depicting these rampaging creatures, this stage Hercules thrillingly exceeds the impact of the animated film's images, and likely will be exciting to family audiences which had virtually sold out the entire run prior to its official opening.

Yet, in all other aspects, despite some solid performances, I found the stage Hercules to be a major disappointment. However, it is not irredeemable. In fact, the missteps and what could be done to correct them appear to be so apparent that it is difficult to understand why they have not been already undertaken.

The musical is an incredibly loose adaptation of Greek mythology that sheds very little light on its source. Hercules is the newly born son of the good, dominant god Zeus, who has restored peace and order to a chaotic world. Zeus has assigned a malevolent god, Hades, to be in charge of and reside in Hell. Very unhappy with his difficult and unpleasant assignment, Hades is determined to overthrow Zeus. The Fates inform Hades that in eighteen years, the stars will be in alignment for him to defeat Zeus, but if Hercules joins in the fight against him, Hades will be defeated.

Hades orders the Titans, Pain and Panic, to kidnap and kill Hercules. Although the gods are immortal, Hades has a bottled liquid which when swallowed in its entirety will kill the baby Hercules. Executing Hades' plan, the bumbling Pain and Panic fail to force all of the liquid down Hercules' throat. Thus, Hercules survives, but loses his godhood and immortality and cannot live on Mount Olympus with the gods.

Forward to eighteen years later. Hercules is living in Thebes. Although Hercules is kind and good natured, his super human strength causes him to be a clumsily destructive and widely disliked fish out of water. After learning part of his history, Hercules somehow manages to make contact with Zeus. Zeus informs Hercules that only by doing something extraordinarily heroic can he become an immortal god again and return to live with the gods on Mount Olympus. Hercules recruits the comically disgruntled Titan Phil to train him in the combat skills he will need to go from zero to hero.

Despite not being particularly fond of the movie, I was looking forward to this Hercules based on the excellence of composer Alan Menken's stage adaptations of Disney musicals for which he had composed the music. As I noted in my 2019 review of the Paper Mill production of the Disney Beauty and the Beast, rather than just adding some less than stellar new songs to provide the bloat to enable a stage musical, Menken and his creative colleagues constructed a traditional two-act stage musical that provided the plot and structure for a new first-rate first-act curtain song, a strong second-act finale, and six additional integrated new songs that were character and plot driven, as well as commensurate with the movie score.

Sadly, this Hercules, contrary to my expectations, is largely a misdirected, reductive version of the movie and performed more like a rock-style concert than a stage musical. The songs are often performed by the narrating chorus of the ever-in-motion Muses, who appear to be competing with one another (both visually and musically) in a raucous manner and sing at as fast a pace as can be mustered. The Muses and the orchestra also seem to compete as each perform in an ever increasingly ear-splitting manner. The result makes the lyrics difficult to follow and obfuscates the details of the melodies. And this chorus of five Muses, whose narration is already dominant in the movie, in which they repeatedly (four times in differing tempos) sing "The Gospel Truth" at its beginning, seem to have been assigned a majority of the new music. In view of its manner of presentation here, I am at a loss to know how much of this material consists of new songs in relation to how much of it is made up of additional reprises of "Truth". However, it provides bloat rather than enhancement. Furthermore, as it is performed in this production, it is impossible to absorb and enjoy the gag-filled, modern, and smile-inducing lyrics provided by David Zippel. Still, the obviously strong singing talent of the actresses portraying the Muses (Anastacia McCleskey, Destinee Rea, Charity Angel Dawson, Tiffany Mann, Rashidra Scott) deserves acknowledgement.

Lear DeBessonet's misdirection extends to the crucial plot scene in which Zeus declares that Hercules can return to live with the gods. Zeus and Hera are located far downstage. The people of Thebes are rather tightly spread across the entire stage upstage, blocking a large portion of the audience across the width of the theater from being able to see them.

The choreography by Chase Brock and Tanisha Scott is most energetic and provides a degree of entertainment. However, there is nothing particularly inventive, clever or memorable about it. It a loose-form, freestyle, athletic type of dance.

The book by Robert Horn and Kwame Kwei-Armah makes no effort to buttress the weak set-up of the movie, which fails to provide a sufficient explanation for Hades being able to diminish the baby Hercules. Similarly, it remains difficult to sort out which of the creatures are Fates, Titans, or Cyclops. For example, why are disparate creatures all Titans and what made each of them either a good or bad Titan? Rather than expanding their roles, some of the creatures appearing in the movie have been dropped (Ares, Hermes). Furthermore, while there are some new gags in the musical, I would venture that more have been dropped than added.

Menken and Zippel have written about half a dozen or so new songs for the stage Hercules. Most interesting is "Forget About It," a duet for Hercules and Meg. She is the love interest who enchants the innocent Hercules at first sight but initially betrays him. It is always a pleasure to hear "Go the Distance," "I Won't Say I'm in Love", and "Zero to Hero." During the last twenty-five minutes, when the big battles are fought prior to the musical finale, there are no musical numbers in the movie Hercules. I was expecting that new songs and deeper characterizations would fill out the second act here. Disappointingly, this was not to be. Instead we have a very short and unexceptional second act that feels truncated and makes the entire show feel unbalanced.

Some of the problems with Disney's Hercules may grow out of the fact that that its original production was intended more as a civic project than a Broadway-style musical. It was produced by the Public Works component of the Public Theater in one act for a run of just over a week at the conclusion of the 2019 Shakespeare in the Park season. It had a cast of 200, which included a number of professional actors, but was mostly cast from beneficiaries of community organizations serving disadvantaged communities throughout New York City. The book included such additions as a demonstration by the people of Thebes in which they demand affordable housing. In and of itself, this is more than fine. However, there seems to have been little disposition to construct a fully developed Broadway-worthy musical.

Bradley Gibson is a most likeable Hercules, with an attitude and demeanor that exactly captures the animated Hercules. Isabelle McCalla captures all the competing aspects of the multi-dimensional Meg. Shuler Henley gets little opportunity to make a strong impression as the severely underwritten, one-dimension role of Hades. Hey this is Hades, man. There's probably lots that he could tell us. Give him a song, boys and girls. Why not two?

Most impressive is the irrepressible James Monroe Iglehart. Sure, Iglehart is a great entertainer. He makes it look so easy that, unless you watch him closely, you could miss the fact that he is a consummate actor. His Phil is a very funny curmudgeon who in moments when he turns happy never feels to be out of character. Given a big song and dance solo anchored by a so-so song, Iglehart knocks it out of the park.

The puppet design and direction by James Ortiz is top notch. It is abetted by the set design of Dane Laffrey and the lighting design (including within the puppets) by Jeff Croiter. For the most part, the lavish costume design of Emilio Sosa is a major asset to the production.

In the style and with key words employed by the animated Phil: Critic, don't be a yutz. Just say it. If this furshluggener musical is ever going to succeed, it should be placed in the hands of someone who knows what is required to create a good commercial musical.

Disney's Hercules runs through March 19, 2023, at Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn NJ. Performances are Evenings: Wednesday - Sunday 7 p.m.; Matinees: Thursday, Saturday, Sunday 1:30 p.m. For tickets and information, please visit or call the box office at 973-376-4343.

Cast (in order of appearance) Muses : Anastacia McCleskey (Thalia); Destinee Rea (Terpsichore); Charity Angel Dawson (Clio); Tiffany Mann (Calliope); Rashidra Scott (Melpomene) /; Dennis Stowe (Zeus); Kristen Faith Oei (Hera); Shuler Hensley (Hades); Ben Roseberry (Pain); Jeff Blumenkrantz (Panic); Fates : Lucia Giannetta (Atropos); Allyson Kaye Daniel (Lachesis); Anne Fraser Thomas (Clotho) / ; Kathryn Allison (Despina); Bradley Gibson (Hercules); Allyson Kaye Daniel (Aunt Tithesis); James Monroe Iglehart (Phil); Jesse Nager (Nessus); Isabelle McCalla (Meg)

Additional Ensemble: Marcus Cobb, Zachary Downer, Ryan Fitzgerald,, Kendall LeShanti, Skye Mattox, Jason W. McCollum, Erin N. Moore, Jesse Nager, JJ Niemann, Adam Roberts