For a limited off-Broadway run, The Public Theater slammed together a larger than life production of Disney’s Hercules at the outdoor Delacorte Theater at Central Park. Hercules stands out among its Disney stage-adapted brethren due to its refreshingly scrappy tapestry of communal intimacy laced into a familiar crowd-pleasing tale for 90-minutes of a good family-friendly time. 

Those who attended likely grew up with the Disneyfied Greek myth of the 1997 animated Hercules with a happily-ever-after and modern pop culture jokes in ancient Greece. Hercules is born to two gods, Zeus and Hera (Michael Roberts and Tar-Shay Margaret Williams), on the heavens of Mount Olympus. But due to the machinations of the God of the Underworld, Hades (Roger Bart, the original singing voice of the animated Hercules going for a hammy infantile interpretation), the boy is plucked from the heavens, turned into a mortal, with nothing left of his godliness except his superhuman strength.

He grows into a clumsy but well-intentioned teenager, played by Jelani Alladin with athletic prowess and a boyish dorkiness, as he searches for belonging.  He discovers allies in a washed-up coach Phil (James Monroe Iglehart, renowned as the OBC Genie on Aladdin on Broadway), feisty love interest Megara (a headstrong Krysta Rodriguez), who has her own secret baggage as an agent of Hades, and a Greek tough town. The tale is sung by a quintet of the fan-favorite Muses (Ramona Keller, Brianna Cabrera, Rema Webb, Tamika Lawrence, Tieisha Thomas) who steal the show and rake in applause every time they strut in to belt the “Gospel Truth.”

This Hercules bears offerings of original songs by the film’s composer Alan Menken and lyricist David Zippel and new book by Kristoffer Diaz and choreography by Chase Brock (Be More Chill). Fans would be pleased to know that classic Disney villain Hades now has a jazzy villain number, “A Cool Day in Hell.” But the gutpuncher is the new ballad “To Be Human,” first as a choir piece before it evolves into Hercules’s final showstopper.

With vibrant puppets resembling monsters floating in and out, the production embraces a community-theatre humility with minimal Classical order columns but otherwise no major set pieces. As an outdoor theatre, its only backdrop is a night sky of Central Park. While Hercules wears a toga, the leather-jacket-wearing Meg and the ensemble tend to be attired in modernity, not just as a nod to the anachronisms of the Disney film but to New Yorkers you might walk by in NYC. There is theatrical ingenuity, such as the introduction of Hades, dragging a long cape representing the river of the Underworld. Then there’s a sight gag where the Fates cut threads representing the life of mortals, then an audience member dying. Of course, the book (or maybe ad-libbing) spills inevitable Broadway gags—the audience rejoiced at shout-outs to “Hercules Mulligan” from Hamilton and “Wait from Me” from Hadestown

With a cast of over 200, an intermingling of professional and amateur performers, and cast members from ages 5 to 80, Hercules is attuned to a New York audience, those who received no-cost tickets through the digital or in-person lottery. When Hercules offers to assist villagers, he is ambushed with questions like “Can you help us find affordable housing?” or “improve the integrity of discourse?”

This Hercules also undergoes an updated odyssey of not strength, but sensitivity. Hercules packs surprising punches when Hercules sinks into a sobbing fit of insecurity and fathoms that people only love his strength and heroism, not him. Phil drops his toughness and assures Hercules that it’s okay for him to stop his journey in a poignant reprise of “One Last Hope,” a theme that echoes to Disney’s evolution of sensitivity in Moana—that says its all right for Chosen Ones to say no to high-pressure callings.

My stand-out issue is that Megara, although more service is done compared to her still enjoyable animated iteration, does still come off as a product of an uninformed male writer’s narrow definition of empowered feminism—not to say she doesn’t unravel her own texture and finds an arc in reopening her isolated heart to company. She delivers quite the cutting monologue about loneliness. 

The book also alters Zeus and Hera from gracious and doting in the animated film to patronizing tough-love figures berating their son’s hubris, including the applause-inducing, “Being a hero and a celebrity is not the same thing!” It’s a fascinating alteration. They speak flippantly about their son’s mortal status, suggesting their affection is conditional, thus furthering Hercules’s decision to accept mortal life. The gods never bequeath Hercules a winged-horse Pegasus in this version, but Hercules is bequeathed mortals who have his back. They rise as Hercules’s saviors and support system, in a wish-fulfillment scenario where they all come together and battle the evil titans more effectively than the gods—throw in the sudden emergence of the Passaic High School Marching Band to drum for the mortal cavalry too. 

The story elements can feel unpolished or corner-cutting as it experiments with alterations, hit or miss, on a nearly set-free stage. But this production is not there to shoot for refinement. It’s there to unite and assemble a diverse group of somebodies to tell its family audience it’s okay to be imperfect and a work-in-progress. Its commitment to humility and maximum inclusion teaches families and kids to embrace their rudiments. 

Could this be a test-drive for a higher-budgeted Broadway move? It wouldn’t be surprising if Disney is prepping Hercules for traditional commercialistic fare in the tourist-attraction spectrum of stage adaptations like the currently running Lion King, Aladdin, Frozen, all with varying levels of inspiration and creativity. As much as I like to entertain the imaginative possibilities for Hercules on Broadway, the Public Theater’s intimate communal context with its bountiful cast of amateurs and professionals has a magic that won’t be replicable on the Broadway venue with boisterous sets and high ticket prices. For those fortunate enough to have won the no-cost lottery during its short-lived run, this Disney’s Hercules is remembered as a Public Theater modest translation that belonged to the NYC community.

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