It’s the Broadway story of an awkward boy with magical powers, his nerdy best friend and a strong, confident girl who embark on a mission to combat the forces of evil and save the world. If you guessed Harry Potter and the Cursed Child it would be a logical assumption but you’d be off by about fifteen actors and $60 million dollars. The relatively inexpensive, streamlined The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical has taken over the Longacre Theater and while it may not have Harry Potters budget, special effects or tie-in to the world’s most popular franchise, it still has the ability to cast a spell over young theater goers.
The story of Percy Jackson originated in 2002 when Rick Riordan was telling stories to his twelve year old son Haley, diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia. Riordan created a hero who also had ADHD, who also had dyslexia, and was also twelve years old. In Riordan’s story Percy is the son of his mortal mother and Poseidon, making him a demigod. This little piece of information is kept a secret from him while he is growing up, which understandably leads to questions he has about his differences from the other kids. His mother raises him without help from his immortal father until she is killed in an attack by a Minotaur. In Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief Musical Percy (Chris McCarrell) is sent to a camp for children whose parents are also gods and, like Percy, are also kept at arm’s distance, leading to all sorts of moody offspring severely in need of therapy. A crisis emerges when Zeus’ famous lightning bolt is stolen and Percy is rumored to be the thief. If the lightning bolt is not returned it will lead to all out war between Zeus and Poseidon, affecting the entire world. Percy embarks on a quest to find the lightning bolt, said to be in the Underworld. If he can find the bolt he can stop the war and save millions of lives but, just as importantly to him, he can possibly rescue his mother and bring her back to the land of the living. And teens today think calculus is hard!
Percy is joined in his quest by his two closest friends: Grover (Jorrel Javier), a satyr and Annabeth (Kristin Stokes), daughter of Athena. Through it all they engage in a series of battles, defeat a slew of demons and recover the stolen lightning bolt, all the while learning about loyalty, responsibility, heroism and themselves. If it feels like a show aimed more at kids than adults, that’s because it is. If you come to The Lightning Thief expecting to see another Fun Home, Next to Normal or pretty much anything by Stephen Sondheim you’re going to be disappointed. But if you go to the show with a child, or at least with a child’s imagination, you’re going to have a great time. Directed by Stephen Brackett, the show moves with the speed of….well, lightning. Brackett understands that his target audience has a relatively short attention span and he rarely leaves things sit still. The impressive seven character cast is constantly in motion, constantly giving the eye new things to wonder at; switching costumes and dialects at the drop of a hat.
The book is by Joe Tracz (based on Riordan’s original work), who has his hands full. This may have originated as a children’s tale but it’s evolved into a very complex story. There are subplots on top of subplots, betrayals, hidden agendas and so on. Hell, just keeping track of which gods are responsible for what is enough to make one’s head spin. (Ares is the god of war, Artemis is goddess of the hunt and Athena the goddess of battle strategy). But Tracz manages to keeps us all straight and pretty much on track, occasionally by having the characters summarize what’s happened thus far. I suppose even they have a hard time keeping things straight. Tracz tosses as much of Greek mythology into the show as it can handle, with Ares, Medusa, Hades and even Poseidon all making their appearance.
The music and lyrics are by Rob Rokicki and fit right in with the rest of the show. This is a musical about the power of the gods, for god’s sake; let’s keep it exciting, let’s keep it moving, let’s give it some speed. There is a sharp, quick pace to almost all the songs, starting with the opening number Prologue/The Day I Got Expelled” which basically sets up the whole premise, including the problems inherent in being the child of a god. This gets repeated later on in “The Campfire Song” where we start to learn exactly who is who and which god screwed up which kid. There’s a hard rock beat that permeates most of the score, most noticeably in songs like “Put You in Your Place”, “Lost” and “Good Kid”. The one exception is the touching and melodic “The Tree on the Hill”, sung by Grover, in which we learn a key part of the story and the the burden carried by Percy’s two sidekicks.
In terms of the casting, the show lives and dies on Percy Jackson, who’s basically on stage the entire time. McCarrell is perfect as the confused, insecure, reluctant teen who somehow gets thrust into a role he never wanted, never understood, but does it because he is the only one who can. McCarrell has a fine singing voice, a disarming air and does a terrific job as both the brooding, put upon teenager and the hero on the rise. As his best friend and satyr-protector Grover, Jorrel Javier is a delight, milking the most out of every comic moment, yet heart-breaking when revealing his secret past. Kristin Stokes is a fiery Annabeth, the strongest member of the three and never missing an opportunity to let the others know it. Stokes has a lovely voice, best put to use in “My Grand Plan”, wherein she outlines her ambition. Because these are supposed to be young teenagers, the romantic attraction between Percy and Annabeth is played down, but since they are being played by adults one can’t help but feel that somehow these two will wind up together.
When the curtain call happens you sit in the audience waiting for the other half of the cast to come out. Instead, just seven actors take a bow and you suddenly realize that the dozens of different personalities, characters and creatures populating the stage these past two and a half hours were all the work of just seven multi-talented individuals. Six, actually, since McCarrell remains Percy Jackson throughout the show. The commitment of this versatile cast is a marvel.
As I mentioned, The Lightning Thief is not for everyone. The Book of Mormon is funnier, Waitress has more heart and Dear Evan Hansen is more profound. If you’re coming to New York to see a serious, moody musical you have plenty of other options. For God’s sake, Phantom is still running and will be, no matter how long it takes for you to get to it. But The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical does something special in its own right. The day I went the theater was full, and at least half of the audience seemed under fifteen, including my ten year old daughter. The bright lights, colorful costumes, imaginative staging and fairy tale storytelling struck a deep chord with them, their eyes glued to the stage for more than two hours. Getting children interested in musical theater. Now, that’s magic.
For information and tickets to The Lightening Thief