By Jessica Derschowitz
September 02, 2019 at 06:26 PM EDT

As August comes to a close and September takes its place, the hottest ticket in town for New York theatergoers isn’t perma-hit Hamilton or this year’s Tonys champ Hadestown, it’s a different H with a taste for heroics and some killer tunes.

After much anticipation and probably a few too many “Go the Distance” puns, a stage adaptation of Disney’s 1997 musical Hercules has made its debut at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. It’s an extremely limited run (just Aug. 31-Sept. 8) and fans’ affinity for the source material means interest in the production is high, and those who land (free!) seats for that handful of shows will be treated to a lively but low-key production that feels in many ways like the polar opposite of Disney’s string of megawatt Broadway hits — which is a big part of its charm.

This Hercules comes via the Public Theater’s Public Works program, which casts local New Yorkers in its productions alongside working actors. (Last year’s effort was an excellent musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.) And for a story that’s all about finding the place where you belong, that community ethos adds the right dose of homegrown heart.

Credit: Joan Marcus

The stage show, directed by Public Works founder Lear deBessonet, follows the framework of the Disney film, with the requisite film-to-stage additions and tweaks (there are new songs, but no flying Pegasus sidekick to be found). The titular hero is born the son of the gods Zeus and Hera, but grows up on Earth after the villainous Hades (Roger Bart) dispatches his minions to make the baby mortal — which they do, but bungle the plan and leave little Hercules with his godlike super-strength. Thus, the now-grown Hercules (Jelani Alladin) feels like an outcast in his home village, loved by his parents but shunned by everyone else in town because of his awkwardness and propensity for inadvertent destruction. When he learns his true origins, he sets off to become a hero so he can return home to Mount Olympus, with the help of some Rocky-style coaching from a tracksuit-wearing Philoctetes (James Monroe Iglehart).

Credit: Joan Marcus

Herc’s journey unfolds with the narrative help of the Muses, an all-female Greek chorus with the sound of a gospel choir, and songs from Alan Menken and David Zippel — fan-favorites like “Zero to Hero,” “Go the Distance,” and “I Won’t Say (I’m in Love)” are all there — and Kristoffer Diaz’s book keep many of the film’s quippy gems while adding dimension to the story’s themes about what being a hero really means. (There are also fun, winky references to the two other hit “H” musicals mentioned above.)

Alladin, who previously brought another Disney character to the stage with his charming turn as Kristoff in Broadway’s Frozen, makes Hercules an earnest hero but doesn’t shy away from bringing the character’s insecurities and anguish to the story. And Bart, who provided the singing voice for Herc in the animated Hercules 22 years ago, is a deliciously pompous and tightly wound Lord of the Underworld, with an electric blue wig replacing the flamed hair the character had in the movie. The film’s love interest, Meg, also gets a revamp with a refreshing new level of agency and much more to say, and Krysta Rodriguez plays her with the perfect amounts of sarcasm and sensitivity.

Menken and Zippel’s new songs for the show probably aren’t destined for the same level of devotion as the film’s original tunes (though a duet for Hercules and Meg that cements their chemistry and a jazzy number for Hades are both fun), and some inventive but low-tech puppetry and staging bring the story’s gods and monsters to the Delacorte stage.

Credit: Joan Marcus

If you go, don’t expect Broadway-caliber theatrics, but know that’s part of the fun. It’s been said there are no plans to transfer this Hercules to a bigger stage, but if the excitement around this production is any indication — the applause started about three seconds into the overture during Sunday night’s performance — it’s clear the appetite for it is there, and Disney Theatrical Productions has a solid, heartfelt blueprint for a show that could someday go that distance. B+

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