It always puzzled me why it’s taken so long for “Hercules,” arguably Disney’s most Broadway-ready animated film musical, to get a proper staging. Sure, it’s got lightning-hurling gods and thunderous titans running amok, but if the omnipotent entertainment company can make nannies and carpets fly onstage, it can certainly find a way to bring to life the myth of Zeus’ mortal son, whose daring deeds, its song “Zero to Hero” goes, make great the-a-ter.
The Public Theater figured out a scrappy, low-budget way through its Public Works program in 2019: Alan Menken’s hit-after-hit score, with lyrics by David Zippel, handled the razzle-dazzle and Kristoffer Diaz’s book retooled the 1997 film’s story to focus on the importance of community.
Now comes a sloppily revised iteration written by Kwame Kwei-Armah, the artistic director of the Young Vic theater in London, and the composer Robert Horn at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J. The story still follows the attempts by the earthbound Herc (Bradley Gibson) to achieve hero status in order to regain access to Mount Olympus after his spiteful uncle Hades (Shuler Hensley) strips him of his immortality shortly after birth. He still falls for the not-quite damsel-in-distress Megara (Isabelle McCalla), despite his trainer Phil’s (James Monroe Iglehart) advice, and to the accompanying tune of a quintet of soulful Muses.
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But while the Public’s version took its cues from a post-2016 society and earnestly questioned what it meant to be a hero — its Grecians hungry for affordable housing and stable social programs rather than a strongman to save the day — Lear deBessonet returns to direct a production that is surprisingly drab and lifeless.
DeBessonet’s transitions are clunky and ineffective. Emilio Sosa’s costumes look borrowed, lacking godly luster above (Zeus and Hera are out of a Nativity scene) and classical taste below (mostly leggings and tunics, and an unconvincing toga for Hercules). Chase Brock and Tanisha Scott’s choreography can be bested by most cheer squads. With its towering Doric columns, Dane Laffrey’s set actually inspires some awe, but only when Jeff Croiter’s uneven lighting design makes it visible.
Menken and Zippel’s original songs (“I Won’t Say (I’m in Love),” “The Gospel Truth,” among others) remain undeniable treasures, taking divine cues from gospel, but are blandly arranged by the five people credited with the score’s presentation, which has a blurry sound that may as well come from a backing track. The new material is less exciting, but at least orchestrated with a bit more ingenuity.
The Muses (Tiffany Mann, Anastacia McCleskey, Destinee Rea, Rashidra Scott and the luminous Charity Angél Dawson) mine much-needed melismatic oomph from the material, but, aside from McCalla’s magnetic performance, they stand alone in that regard. The production’s biggest names, Hensley and Iglehart, passively traipse on and offstage.
And as the near-superhuman wonder boy, Gibson’s uneasy stage presence results in stilted line readings and an unconvincing performance. Granted, his role — the title one, mind you — is barely a character here; a written characterization that’s hyper-infantilized even by Disney standards.
The show is also rife with uncaring gaffes — an obviously Gucci-inspired tracksuit Phil wears is as incorrectly Italian as a joke about a local Times New Roman newspaper. Are the Muses, as they insipidly joke, our “literal Greek chorus” and thus the only ones able to break a fourth wall, or are those townspeople and, at one point Meg, also sometimes involving the audience?
Everything from plot points to character beats unfold with little significance or cohesion, and the whole production feels under-rehearsed, underwhelming, and unimportant. How far we’ve fallen from Olympus.
Through March 19 at the Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn, N.J.; papermill.org. Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes.
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