By Samuel L. Leiter
Like Harry Potter, Percy Jackson is a fictional boy with supernatural powers who has earned widespread popularity in a series of books. Percy was created by a middle-school teacher named Rick Riordan, who entertained his son, afflicted—like Percy—with ADHD and dyslexia, by making up stories based on Greek mythology.
In 2017, the first Percy Jackson book, The Lightning Thief, was transformed by book writer Joe Tracz and composer/lyricist Rob Rokicki into an entertaining, Off-Broadway, rock musical for kids seven and up. I’ve borrowed from my positive review of that production to comment below on its current, less successful Broadway staging, with most of the original cast and creatives intact. Whatever minor flaws it displayed at the intimate Lortel Theatre, where they were part of its charm, have been magnified in the Longacre’s oddly charmless production.
Produced by the young audience-oriented Theatreworks, The Lightning Thief is a fast-paced, decibel-blasting, theatrically frisky adaptation, with seven adult actors, most of them in multiple roles. Tracz’s book—whose themes include the notion that normalcy is a myth and everyone is special, and that parents can be idols with feet of clay—begins with troubled teenager Percy (Chris McCarrell)—he’s 12 in the book—having a weird experience during a field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
A sometimes confusing series of events follows when, after Percy’s mother, Sally (Jalynne Steele), vanishes following his victorious battle with a Minotaur (James Hayden Rodriguez), Percy and his best friend, Grover (Jorrel Javier), actually a satyr, enter the strange Camp Half-Blood. Here Percy discovers he’s really Perseus, a demigod, half-human and half-god, the son of Poseidon (Ryan Knowles). If Perseus is here, can Medusa (Knowles) be far behind?
Percy also encounters other demigod kids, including Annabeth (Kristin Stokes), daughter of Athena; Luke (Rodriguez), son of Hermes; and Clarisse (Sarah Beth Pfeifer), daughter of Ares.
Percy’s in hot water because his father, brother of Zeus and Hades, violated an oath never to have any more children. Moreover, Percy alone can prevent war among the gods by locating Zeus’s stolen thunderbolt. This sends Percy, Annabeth, and Grover on a nation-crossing, monster-quelling quest to retrieve the bolt from the likeliest suspect. That would be Hades (Knowles), in whose realm Sally is a prisoner and Charon (Steele) is a sexy, sequined, Beyoncé-like, pop singer. And where, by the way, we glimpse Kurt Cobain (Knowles), Janis Joplin (Pfeifer), and Mozart (Rodriguez).
Percy, with his magic sword and special powers, must fend off an unexpected foe before all comes to its foregone happy conclusion. (The exuberant fights are by Rob Kinter.)
Entertaining as all this was Off Broadway, it now seems egregiously juvenile, aimed mainly at restless youngsters while ignoring their parents, who would be better served across 48th Street by another show about retrieving someone from Hades. On the other hand, the superlative Hadestown can’t boast The Lightning Thief’s two leaf blowers, which send rolls of toilet paper flying over the audience in beautiful arabesques. If you want to find the show’s missing charm it’s lurking in those armfuls of Charmin held by smiling kids outside as they’re photographed by their parents.
Directed with unsubtle verve by Stephen Brackett and spiritedly choreographed by Patrick McCollum, The Lightning Thief has an air of self-deprecatory playfulness, but it’s now much more ham-handed than I remember. Rokicki’s conventional score—played on keyboard, drums, guitars, melodica, and bass—keeps the show moving but too many songs are of the volume-up, tempo-up, belted-notes variety, with barely a hint at standard balladry. As my companion noted, number after number was competing for 11 o’clock status.
The slender, tousle-haired, big-voiced McCarrell makes a boyish, if one-note Percy; the dynamo-voiced Steele gets several chances to steal scenes; Stokes is a vibrant Annabeth; and the comically gifted Knowles—whose roles include a high-stepping centaur—impresses with his remarkable voice, ranging from an awesomely powerful bass to a reasonable falsetto. Javier, replacing rising star George Salazar, overdoes his farcical shtick, especially as the eternally screaming Dionysus (god of drama).
Sydney Maresca’s many costumes are satisfactory, but the appealing cheesiness of the more exaggerated creature getups now seems merely cheesy. David Lander’s fancy, rock-concert lighting will capture your attention, but Lee Savage’s set of metal scaffolding fronting a background of graffiti-scrawled Greek pillars is boringly dull for a Broadway musical. Ryan Rumery’s sound effects, though, remain as ingenious as ever.
Lightning does not strike twice for The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical.
Photos: Jeremy Daniel
Longacre Theatre 220 W. 48th St., NYC – run time: 2 hrs. Through January 5