‘Hercules’ Theater Review: Can Disney’s Animated Hero Go the Distance to Broadway?

Alan Menken adds a few new songs to his 1997 film score for this Public Theater production

Jelani Alladin hercules
Photo: Joan Marcus

Disney’s 1997 animated film “Hercules” was a box office underperformer, and the film landed only a single Oscar nomination, for Alan Menken and David Zippel’s upbeat anthem “Go the Distance” (which lost, inevitably to “My Heart Will Go On” from “Titanic”).

But now, Disney Theatrical Group has unearthed the fan favorite for the stage — and the first production, playing for a brief run at the Public Theater’s outdoor Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, works better than bigger-budgeted recent efforts like “Frozen.”

For one thing, director Lear deBessonet’s homespun production runs about as long as the original film — just over 90 minutes — despite the addition of five mostly catchy new songs (also from Menken and Zippel, whose witty lyrics include the gem-like rhyming of sinew with continue).

But the show also captures the bouncy energy and fleet storytelling of the original, which adapted the Greek myth of half-God, half-human Hercules for the Disney storybook set. Kristoffer Diaz’s new script crams in a lot of narrative and a lot of jokes, including some delightful eye-rolling puns that only work in context. (“Enjoy your Labor Day on the cape!” is a classic that I wouldn’t dare spoil, in part because it would take far longer to explain and depends on one of Andrea Hood’s remarkable and colorful costumes.)

The cast is full of Disney-on-Broadway veterans, including the buff and acrobatic Jelani Alladin (Kristoff in Broadway’s “Frozen”) as the hero and James Monroe Iglehart (the Tony-winning Genie in “Aladdin”) as Herc’s gyro-selling trainer Phil. Tony winner Roger Bart, who provided the singing voice for Hercules in the film, now hams it up as the villain Hades — whose quest to conquer Earth and Olympus, where his brother Zeus rules, requires him first to vanquish Zeus’ son Herc.

Since this is a production of the Public Theater’s Public Works program, the cast also includes scores of amateur performers, ranging in age from 5 to eightysomething and drawn from eight community groups from across New York City. There are some standouts here, including among the quintet of Muses who belt out gospel-tinged, exposition-laden tunes, but the production sometimes feels like souped-up community theater while still suiting the material — and its message.

The physical production is similarly simple but effective, from Dane Laffrey’s barebones set to the giant puppets (designed by James Ortiz) that suggest the Hydra and other big-screen monsters our hero must battle.

Diaz’s book also smartly updates the Disney story, both to give love interest Meg (“Smash” alum Krysta Rodriguez) some feisty agency but also to question the idea of what it means to be a hero at all, and that Herc cannot simply rely on brawn alone to prove his worth. “You’ve become a celebrity,” Phil tells him at one point. “That’s not the same thing as being a hero.”

Or as a chorus member asks Herc about what sort of heroism he can provide, “Can you find us affordable housing?”

For the record: A previous version of this review misidentified the actor playing Hades.