From left, Rema Webb, Tamika Lawrence, Ramona Keller, Brianna Cabrera and Tieisha Thomas in 'Hercules'
From left, Rema Webb, Tamika Lawrence, Ramona Keller, Brianna Cabrera and Tieisha Thomas in 'Hercules' ©2019 Joan Marcus

Hercules seems an unlikely subject for Public Works, a participatory theatre programme run by the Public Theater whose focal point is an annual, free, open-air production that blends professional actors with community groups. The aim, we are told here in a pre-curtain address, is to promote a radically democratic and inclusive style of theatre.

But what’s democratic about the son of a god whose superhuman labours are carried out to placate an imperious king?

This adaptation of Disney’s 1997 musical animated film briefly alludes to that problem when some Theban bystanders ask Hercules what he’s going to do about affordable housing and income inequality. The ingenuous young hero — whose brain is dwarfed by his brawn in Jelani Alladin’s portrayal — has no answers. Luckily for him, Hercules is then called upon to perform the traditional heroic duties of rescuing some trapped children from fallen rubble and fighting off the dreaded Hydra. The Thebans duly seem to forget all about housing and inequality.

Having made that perfunctory nod to Public Works’ leftish preoccupations, librettist Kristoffer Diaz and director Lear deBessonet similarly get on with transforming their rather dated source material into a lively if rather chaotic theatrical pageant, featuring some 200 performers, while sticking closely to the plot of the none-too-political film.

Most of Alan Menken’s numbers (with lyrics by David Zippel) are reprised from the film and often retain a syrupy air, though a gospel chorus of five muses belt them out with aplomb. More caustic are the bluesy rhythms of “A Cool Day in Hell”, one of five original numbers here, which is sung by Hercules’ antagonist Hades, played with arch world-weariness by Roger Bart. As Hercules’ love interest Megara, Krysta Rodriguez brings zesty spirit to another new, feminist-themed anthem about what she would do in a world without men.

She concludes that she would do just as she pleased. Why then should she (or we) bother with Hercules himself, who seems well below her level? This musical provocatively suggests we can dispense with such mythical heroes. As in its abortive foray into political debate, it then reverts dutifully to type.

★★★☆☆

To September 8, publictheater.org

Get alerts on Theatre when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article