Paper Mill Playhouse’s Hercules—Anything but Ancient History

Any theatre kid who is a theatre kid in New Jersey— or any state, really— knows the cultural significance of Paper Mill Playhouse.

Located in Millburn, New Jersey, Paper Mill is famous in the theatre community for producing Broadway-esque shows, rounding in even the most notable Broadway actors for their productions.

Naturally, it’s been a dream of mine to attend a show there as a theater kid myself, but nothing ever caught my eye. Nonetheless, everything changed when I saw that the 2023 season had Disney’s Hercules (my favorite Disney movie) on the roster. At $80 for two mezzanine seats, I was ready to bask in the godly glory of Ancient Greece.

Let me preface this by underscoring the colossal amount of talent represented in this show. Hercules himself was played by Bradley Gibson, who was in the original Broadway casts of Rocky and A Bronx Tale and starred as Simba in The Lion King.

James Monroe Iglehart, who played Phil, has performed in Chicago (Billy Flynn), Hamilton (Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson), and Freestyle Love Supreme on Broadway; he even won a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor as the Genie in Aladdin.

Long Branch native Jeff Blumenkrantz as Panic has starred in Bright Star (Daryl Ames), A Class Act, Damn Yankees, 3 Penny Opera, and Into the Woods (Jack/Rapunzel’s Prince) on Broadway. If you think these credits collectively are impressive, they’re just the tip of the iceberg in regard to the rest of the cast.

Needless to say, the show was incredible; multiple times I had to remind myself that I wasn’t actually on Broadway. The actors’ performances were flawless, and there wasn’t one character who I thought didn’t deserve to be up there among the rest. Likewise, the set was absolutely stunning, with spinnable rows of Greek columns (think the floor stage design in Hamilton) lining either side of the stage. Multiple times lighting illusions were used to make the stage appear more spacious than it actually was; nevertheless, lighting as a whole was a crucial part of the musical’s immersive experience.

Though the time period is Ancient Greece, the costumes certainly proved more modern. Hercules donned a white tunic paired with pristine white high tops while Meg sported a leather jacket in her customary purple. Not to mention, the puppet work alone was godly and had my jaw dropped during scenes with mythical beasts and the Titans. There was not one weak link in any part of the production.

Despite my overwhelming sense of awe, I do have some gripes with the show. The most pressing one is Hades’ added song “Cool Day in Hell.” While I do agree that Hades desperately lacked his own musical moment in the movie version of Hercules, “Cool Day in Hell” didn’t cut it for me. Not that I have any right to critique the great Alan Menken, but “Cool Day in Hell” simply wasn’t, well, cool enough for a character like Hades. The song was slow and rather anti-climactic. Its unnecessary reprise in Act Two (dubbed “Cool Reprise in Hell”) was almost too much to bear. Shuler Hensley killed (haha) the performance, but a part of me wonders if he’s as sick of the song as I was.

A shocking difference between the musical and the movie is the fact that Phil is 100 percent human and runs a semi-failed food joint rather than 50 percent human as a satyr voiced by Danny Devito. Though it logistically makes more sense for Phil to be fully human in the musical, this change does cause the show to lose a bit of its mythological fascination. There’s definitely a vibe difference between Phil being a six-foot-tall man and a three-foot, half-goat womanizer, but I suppose some sacrifices have to be made for the stage adaptation of any cartoon movie.

Half of the Disney magic present in the Hercules movie is the fact that Meg originally wants nothing to do with Hercules, who, in contrast, becomes instantly smitten with her. She sees him as a means to an end, and it isn’t until she exploits him for her own benefit that she begins to fall in love with him.

The musical had other plans. In an added song “Forget About It,” the last moment of Meg and Hercules’ first meeting shows the duo accidentally fail to leave room for Zeus with Meg almost enjoying the closeness. This is ironic, especially since most of “Forget About It” shows Meg berating Hercules for thinking he needs to save her. This directorial moment could have been cut in order to preserve the morals that Meg passionately professes.

Despite these grievances, Hercules filled a Titan-sized hole in my heart. A truly mesmerizing experience, Hercules runs at Paper Mill through March 19—so make like Hermes and grab tickets while you can!