“I might have knocked over the treasured statue of Poseidon in the town square,” says title character of the musical “Hercules,” which is currently being presented at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn. “He was literally … poseid himself, in pieces.”
Later, when the character — raised as a human though he was born to gods — learns of his real parents, he cries out, “Wait, I literally have godparents?”
If jokes like these strike you as hilarious, you’re going to love this Disney musical, which is based on Disney’s 1997 animated movie. But if they make you groan instead of laugh, you may start losing your patience. Because “Hercules” has a ton of them. And while “I see dead people,” as spoken in the presence of the mortality-controlling Fates, might have seemed hilarious in 1999 (after the phrase became famous via the film “The Sixth Sense”), it seems awfully stale now.
This production, directed by Lear deBessonet, has some undeniable strengths. James Monroe Iglehart, for instance, is a ball of uplifting energy as Philoctetes (aka Phil), who coaches Hercules in his attempt to regain entrance to the home of the gods, Mt. Olympus — and gets his own mojo back in the process.
Shuler Hensley is also very good as the musical’s villain: The droll, deadpan Hades, who is more likely to roll his eyes at an enemy than attempt to strike him down with a thunderbolt. And Hades’ nervous, incompetent henchmen, Pain (Reggie De Leon) and Panic (Jeff Blumenkrantz), are pretty amusing in that Disney-patented annoying-sidekick manner.
The score, composed by Alan Menken with lyrics by David Zippel, has a proven winner of an anthem in “Go the Distance,” whose ’97 soundtrack version became a Top 40 hit for Michael Bolton. The rest of it is hardly as memorable, though I was charmed by “Forget About It,” a playful duet in which the lovestruck Hercules (Bradley Gibson) is rebuffed by the object of his affection, Meg (Isabelle McCalla), whose defining character trait — her only character trait, really — is that she adamantly feels she doesn’t need a hero to save her.
The show’s biggest problem, though, is its book, by Robert Horn and Kwame Kwei-Armah. To use a phrase that they include themselves (in an off-color joke), it’s an ungodly mess.
While Act One ends with Hercules suffering a huge setback, Act Two jarringly begins with Phil, unaware of what has happened to his protégé, gloating as if he has just won the Super Bowl (in the song, “I’m Back!”). And the should-be-climactic moment when Hercules succeeds in his quest — that rejoining-the-gods thing — has so little drama to it that it barely registers, involving a battle that we never actually see. Dionysus, the Greek god of theater (among other things), would not be amused.
The Muses (Anastacia McCleskey, Destinee Rea, Charity Angél Dawson, Tiffany Mann and Rashidra Scott) serve, more or less, as narrators — a “Greek chorus,” in another joke that’s meant to be witty but just seems silly and obvious. The crowd gave them a big cheer every time they took the stage, which I understood: They dressed glamorously, sang with gospel fervor and sashayed around like a quintet version of Diana Ross & the Supremes. But their “commentary” was largely unintelligible, and their refrain, “… and that’s the gospel truth!,” seemed like a strange one to use, given that what they are doing, mostly, is testifying to the veracity of a polytheistic mythology.
The scenic design, by Dane Laffrey, is most notable for its huge Doric columns, which rotate together, to create a sense of unfolding chaos. But this trick was overused. Puppetry (design and direction by James Ortiz) was effectively used to bring exotic monsters onto the Paper Mill stage.
There’s only so much you can do, though, when the central character of a musical is just not that much of a character. While Gilbert exudes plenty of aw-shucks charm, his “Hercules” is just a muscle-bound blank slate: A naive youth who ends up on top by doing the right thing, simply because it would never occur to him to do the wrong thing. If he seems uncharacteristically braggadocious at one point … that’s only for the sake of a throwaway joke, and he returns to his usual wide-eyed innocence, soon enough.
Disney Theatrical Productions will bring this show to Hamburg, Germany, in the spring of 2024. After that, a Broadway run is certainly possible, no matter how much the critics complain. But even though it is 26 years after the movie — and four years since Disney’s first version of a “Hercules” stage musical ran in New York, off-Broadway — I think a lot of fine-tuning is still needed.
The Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn presents “Hercules” through March 19. Visit papermill.org.
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