Hayley St. JamesComment

Going the Distance For Public Works’ Hercules

Hayley St. JamesComment
Going the Distance For Public Works’ Hercules

Another year, another summer of free theatre at the Delacorte in Central Park courtesy of the estimable Public Theatre. For the past few years, in addition to the two Shakespeare (or Shakespeare-adjacent) shows they put on at the beginning of the summer, the Public has put on a Public Works show around Labor Day, with an emphasis on bringing performers from around the boroughs together to put on a show. I seem to say this every year, but Public Works is truly what I love the most about New York theater. It’s a community effort, with a real emphasis on community. The theatre community is so vibrant and ever-expanding, so it’s a real treat to spend a few hours in a park together under the stars watching some theatrical alchemy happen together. Last year I reviewed their revival of Shaina Taub’s delightful Twelfth Night musical, which was easily accessible; this year’s Public Works show, however, was a totally different affair… and that’s the gospel truth. 

Last year I told the tale of how I single-handedly revived Twelfth Night.  Well, folks, it’s storytime again. This is the story of how I got the chance to catch the hottest show of the summer.

This year, instead of adapting a Shakespeare play, Public Works teamed up with the good folks at Disney Theatricals to bring to life the beloved 1997 animated film, Hercules, in a new musical adaptation. This announcement was music to Disney-loving millennials’ ears, to say the least. I had never seen so many people online excited for a Public Theatre show since Hamilton. But unlike the Public Works of the past few years, acquiring tickets for this production wasn’t going to be as easy as waking up early and standing in line to wait for distribution. This year, the Public Works show was TodayTix digital lottery only, which meant for this show tickets would be distributed at random through an in-app lottery rather than in person in the park, with an in-person standby lottery for cancellations the week of the run. The digital lottery had a rather lengthy entry period, about three weeks. The day the winners were picked, it was a digital bloodbath - I could count on one hand how many people I actually knew personally who won. I was not one of the lucky ones, alas. So it was off to the standby lottery to try my luck.

The day I tried the standby lottery, the show had already had one performance the night before. I got to the park a bit before 5, put my name in at 5, and hung around the Delacorte until 7:10 when they started picking standby winners. I was hanging out with some friends, two with tickets already and one who entered as a single. As the lottery results were called, I got more and more anxious. The crowds were massive, I had heard rumors 200 tickets were given out the night before. The time flew by; my anxiety rose every 5 minutes. By the time the overture to the show could be heard from outside the theatre and tickets stopped being distributed, my heart sank. Even though so many of my friends and acquaintances won that evening, I did not get to join them. I walked thirty blocks home and sadly listened to the movie soundtrack on Spotify the whole way.

Hope was not lost, however.

A few days later, through some miraculous combination of prayers to the Greek gods and sheer luck, I got my chance to see Hercules. A friend whose plus-one couldn’t make it AND a high chance of a rained-out performance? Bless my soul indeed.

You see, I have been a big fan of the original animated film for ages, and I consider the score to be top tier Alan Menken (all Alan Menken is top tier, though, let’s be real.) I’ve wanted a stage musical version for most of my life. The wait was absolutely worth it.

If you don’t know Hercules, it’s a pretty simple plot as far as Disney shows go: Hercules is the half-god son of Zeus, stolen from the Gods by Hades’ minions, and it’s up to him to stop Hades from taking over the world - and learn what it means to be a hero in the process.

Literal Disney hero Jelani Alladin was the perfect Hercules; his charm and charisma from his turn as Kristoff in Frozen worked beautifully with the heart and vulnerability he brought to the young demigod striving to be a hero. His “Go the Distance” brought tears of nostalgia to my eyes, and his 11 o’clock ballad “To Be Human” broke my heart with its beauty.  Krysta Rodriguez was a saucy spitfire as not-a-damsel double agent Megara; her feisty but lovable turn (in pants!) brought to mind the ultimate fusion of Eurydice from Hadestown and Katherine Plumber from Newsies, and her new song (a duet with Hercules) was a delightful addition to a role that already gets the best song from the movie, “I Won’t Say I’m In Love.” When Meg realizes she might be in love with Hercules, she sings this iconic Alan Menken tune. Aladdin’s own James Monroe Iglehart brought a fun and touching new twist to Phil, no longer a satyr but a gyro salesman with a knack for personal training. I loved every performance in this production, but my favorite performances had to be from my favorite characters. Original voice of animated Hercules Roger Bart got promoted to Lord of the Underworld: as the most delightfully wicked and sassy Hades I’ve seen in some time (and I’m a big fan of Hades,) he delivered pitch-perfect one-liners and an amazing, funky new villain song, “A Cool Day in Hell” - and comedy genius Jeff Hiller as a truly iconic Panic tagging along for the mayhem made my entire life. And of course, The Muses, led by Ramona Keller, were YAAAS QUEEN worthy, with powerful harmonies that shook the Delacorte and cracked the sky with “Great Bolts of Thunder!” The community cast members that filled the stage as townsfolk and Olympic gods helped bring the heavenly show just a bit closer to Earth with their earnestness and sheer joy of sharing the stage with Broadway stars.

All the new songs Alan Menken and David Zippel wrote are worthy of the gods; I’m desperately hoping for a concept album or cast album! The sparky new book by Kristoffer Diaz was definitely an improvement on the screenplay, which is classic but a tad dated. The new musical is smart and witty, making smart references to current social issues (the townspeople want affordable housing and health care) as well as fun references to Hadestown and Clue (“Flames… on the side of my face!”.) Lear DeBessonet’s direction was sublime - over 200 people filled the Delacorte stage at times and it was handled so fluidly! And I could never forget to mention puppetry genius James Ortiz (“The Woodsman”) and his jaw-droppingly gorgeous puppetry - the Hydra, Titans, and various gods and monsters were stage-consuming, eye-popping works of art that took my breath away.

Hercules was a stunning achievement for the Public and Disney Theatrical, and I hope it gets a life after this week long run. Broadway? As much as I’d like that, no. Tour this around the country and let as many people as possible experience - and maybe even participate in - the magic. If that can happen, the story of Hercules can truly go the distance.

Photo by Joan Marcus.