Disney’s still got heart.
That’s easy to forget, because the studio that once taught kids to wish upon a star and to go fly a kite has turned into Cyberdyne Systems: an evil behemoth hellbent on taking over the planet with efficient, soulless, murdering clones.
But hold your Pegasus — now there’s “Hercules.” At the Delacorte Theater in Central Park is Disney’s best stage material in years — more entertaining than “Frozen,” “The Little Mermaid” and “Tarzan” — and it’s being presented in a low-key but lovely production by the Public Theater’s Public Works program.
The cartoon film “Hercules” was a box office disappointment for the studio in 1997, but has since become a cult hit. On Sunday night, you could feel the movie’s leap from zero to hero every time the audience whooped when a beloved tune, such as “Go The Distance” or “I Won’t Say I’m In Love,” began. None of them disappointed.
The story is a wise-cracking, sentimental retelling of the title hero’s tale. Born to the Greek gods Zeus and Hera, baby Hercules is kidnapped to Earth to live as a mortal when bad guy Hades (Roger Bart) discovers he’s a threat to his plans for global destruction.
On the ground, 18-year-old Herc (Jelani Alladin) grows up with super-strength, and super-awkwardness. All the ancient Greeks think he reeks because he’s weird, and the poor guy feels lost. That’s when Zeus and Hera appear to him and reveal his celestial lineage. The only way to return home to Mt. Olympus, they say, is to become a hero.
Much of that weighty exposition is sung, gloriously, by the Muses, a chorus of gospel-singing women who belt composer Alan Menken’s (“Beauty and The Beast,” “Aladdin”) catchiest tunes since “Little Shop of Horrors.”
Jeff Hiller, Roger Bart and Nelson Chimilio in “Hercules”Joan Marcus
They pump up their huggable Herc, Alladin, who knows well that a half-god’s gotta be confident, but not too confident. The adorable Adonis is coached in heroics by a track suit-clad James Monroe Iglehart as Philoctetes, who hilariously now runs a gyro stand. And Herc’s love interest, Meg, has been given added punch and even more sarcasm from Krysta Rodriguez, who rocks “I Won’t Say I’m In Love.” The neurotic Bart, meanwhile, talks like a Porky Pig who needs anger management class.
Know that director Lear deBessonet’s staging of “Hercules” is not one with explicit Broadway ambitions, or production values. For one, there’s a community outreach aspect, with 200 talented, regular New Yorkers sharing the stage with the stars. Their inclusion is sweet, heartfelt and moving, but necessitates putting up the production at lightning speed and in a somewhat bare-bones manner.
Still, there is much cleverness and innovative flash in the staging. For instance, during Herc’s training montage, choreographer Chase Brock includes a classic kick-line, only with jumping jacks and deep lunges. How camp!
There’s also a very funny new book from writer Kristoffer Diaz with pantomime-like self-awareness — “Heroes die, and gyros get eaten,” Phil says — and several brand new songs from Menken. A flirty duet between Hercules and Meg called “Forget About It” is cute. Hades’ jazzy anthem “Cool Day In Hell” should go.
As a testing ground for a possible Broadway future for “Hercules,” the park production shows how emotionally rich this property is, and that Disney Theatricals should have greater faith in the runts of its catalog. Indeed, some version of “Hercules” should go the distance — to Broadway.