Powerhouse Musical Hercules Opens at NJ’s Paper Mill Playhouse, Running through March 19, 2023
By: Ellis Nassour
March 2, 2023 – Paper Mill Playhouse (22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ) has officially opened Disney’s totally revamped mega musical, aptly titled Hercules. If you’ve been waiting for a lavish and fun and very musical event to get you back to live theatre, this is it. Hercules, the saga of the strongman son of Zeus seeking divine status, has music by Disney treasure and EGOT Alan Menken (Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Newsies, more) and lyrics by celebrated Tony winner (City of Angels), Oscar and Grammy nominee and million-selling songwriter David Zippel — the lyricist for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s just arrived Bad Cinderella and Disney’s Mulan).
The Paper Mill production is presentedby special arrangement with Disney Theatrical Productions. Hercules is directed by Obie Award winner Lear deBessonet (Into the Woods), who’ll you soon learn is no stranger to this show.
Mark S. Hoebee is Paper Mill’s producing artistic director, with Michael Stotts is executive director.
Baby Hercules is kidnapped with King of the Underworld Hades’ plotting to have him killed by the Fates. Not so fast. He’s stronger than the poison and is found and adopted far from the gates of Zeus. Growing up, in spite of his strength he’s terribly awkward and feared and bullied by the townspeople. He senses he’s destined for greater things than menial house work. He steps out into the world to help and protect others. And to raise the wrath of Hades, whose goal, akin to Scar’s in The Lion King, is to rule the world (above) his way. He promises snarky femme fatale, Meg, a.k.a. Megara, her freedom from eternal fire if she can trap Hercules. And the plot thickens. Yes, of course, she redeems herself.
The revamped book is by Tony winner Robert Horn (Tootsie) and Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of London’s Young Vic. The musical is based on Disney’s 1997 animated film written by Ron Clements, John Musker, Donald McEnery, Bob Shaw, and Irene Mecchi, and directed by Clements and John Musker. It grossed a whopping $100,000,000, so you know there’d be life to come. And …there was.
In 2019, the first stage adaption of Hercules premiered at Central Park’s Delacorte Theatre as part of the Public Theater’s free Public Works series. It was directed by Lear deBessonet, who’s returned to direct this new production.Portraying the coveted role of Hercules is Bradley Gibson(a Simba in The Lion King, A Bronx Tale: The Musical). He rises to the challenge of anchoring an entire show and gave a knock-out rendition of “Go the Distance” that had the audience in an uproar.
Co-starring are two Tony winners: the always-reliable Shuler Hensley(Oklahoma! (R), The Music Man (R)), as Hades, the King of the Underworld; and indefatigable scene-stealer James Monroe Iglehart(Aladdin, Hamilton) as Phil, maker of heroes; and Isabelle McCalla (Aladdin, The Prom) as Meg. She and Gibson have great chemistry in two duets: “Forget About It” and “I Won’t Say (I’m in Love).”
The musical is filled with showstopping and powerhouse performances, and outrageous scene-stealing.
Inglehart, if you recall, literally stole the entire production with his Tony-winning Genie in Aladdin. He is more subdued here – well, until he brought the house down opening Act Two with “I’m Back.” Hercules gives audiences an opportunity to see what an exceptionally-talented actor he is. No spangles and costumes that could light up a theatre, here. He wears a plain jumpsuit. As good as the score and wildly re-crafted book is, Hercules is blessed to have him.
The scene-stealer list is quite long, but topping it, with the exception of muscled Gibson in his modest outfit, are two outrageously-guilty parties: the straight outa Motown Muses, who musically guide the audience through the ages: Charity AngélDawson(Waitress) as Clio, the muse of history; Tiffany Mann (Waitress) as Calliope, the muse of poetry; Anastacia McCleskey(Caroline, or Change) as Thalia, muse of comedy; Destinee Rea (The Book of Mormon) as Terpsichore, the muse of dance; and Rashidra Scott(Company) as Melpomene, the muse of tragedy. Move over Six wives, you’ve got stiff competition from the Five!
Add to the list of scene-stealing comics Jeff Blumenkrantzand Reggie De Leon, the Fates — respectively, Panic and Pain (not that you’d ever want your fate in their hands), who not unashamedly channel Lion King’s meerkat and warthog duo, Timon and Pubmbaa.
Paper Mill is known to do things big – it almost has to with such a huge stage, however, Hercules certainly has to be high on the list or topping the list of shows with large casts. The featured players and ensemble total 35 +. It’s also boasts one of the most musically-seasoned ensembles ever. They’ve trod the boards of several dozen Broadway and Paper Mill stages.
Menken’s score, which covers everything from pure Broadway to soul, jazz, and rap, is supervised/arranged by Michael Kosarin (Aladdin, Broadway and Disney’s animated Hercules). Danny Troob (Broadway and Disney’s animated Hercules, Beauty and the Beast), a longtime associate of Menken’s, and Joseph Joubert(Caroline, or Change; Motown: the Musical) have created sumptuous orchestrations. Mark Hummel did the dance arrangements. Music director/conductor Ted Arthur(Moulin Rouge!, The Prom) keeps everyone on their toes.
Along with the over 10 new tunes, there’re songs from the film, including the Oscar-nominated “Go the Distance,” as well as “Zero to Hero,” “One Last Truth,” “Gospel Truth,” “I Won’t Say (I’m in Love),” and “A Star is Born.”
This month Broadway welcomes back Fosse, and audiences will be treated to a taste of what Broadway dance used to be. Choreography has definitely changed.
This is Chase Brock’s third major show and first musical blockbuster as sole choreographer; and the first for co-choreographer Tanisha Scott, a three-time MTV/VMA-nominee, known for incorporating Jamaican rhythms into songs of Rihanna, Alicia Keys, and Beyoncé, not to mention TV’s Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls. If you like somersaults, karate kicks, jamming, a sample of Rockette high kicks, and dance class exercises, you will be entertained. If not, Inglehart, Hensley, the Muses, and the Fates will soon return.
Hercules is also a dazzling production thanks to designer Dane Laffrey (Once on This Island) and Disney’s limitless resources. It also comes with some equally-dazzling costumes by Tony nominated Emilo Sousa (the upcoming Sweeney Todd revival, A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical, 1776 revival, many more) along with cred creations and that costume for Hades which might have you thinking what was he thinking.
Actually, there’s something for everyone, every age. That includes edge-of-the-seat battles with gigantic puppets by James Ortiz (recent Into the Woods), and special effects magic byJeremy Chernick (Beetlejuice, Aladdin).
Tickets for Hercules at the Paper Mill Playhouse are from $35 – $165 and may be purchased at the Paper Mill’s boxoffice, online at papermill.org, or by calling (973) 376-4343. Groups of 10 or more receive up to a 30% discount on tickets. Call the number above. Students may purchase $20 tickets; and anyone under 30 years old may purchase $30 tickets. Three-show subscription packages are also available starting at $111.
With such a huge investment for the Paper Mill engagement, you know
Disney will be looking forward to Hercules on Broadway. It’s ready when
Just announced: Hercules will follow in the footsteps of Disney’s 2006 Phil Collins’ Tarzan, which became a monster hit in Hamburg, Plans are to have the
European premiere in Spring 2024.