Percy Jackson Musical Review

What a time it is to be a musical inspired by Greek myths centering awkward mortal demigods! This year, Broadway offered an invigorating Eurydice and Orpheus take in Hadestown and The Public Theater gifted Central Park with a refreshingly scrappy, New York-tailored take on Disney’s Hercules. Then along comes The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical at the Longacre Theater after a national tour run.

Those who are buying the ticket are likely fans of Rick Riordan’s 2005 bestselling The Lightning Thief, the first installment of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians young adult book series, about a modern mortal kid of an ancient Greek deity going on a harrowing and humorous quest. Taking pages from book one, the musical focuses on the insecure teen Percy Jackson (Chris McCarrell), whose troubles are only just beginning when he’s expelled for the sixth time. Why? Well, let’s just say that his substitute teacher transformed into a demonic winged-Fury at a museum field trip and he ended up slaying her with a pen turned into a sword. Long story.

Crushed by the expulsion and confused by the incidents, he returns home to his understanding mother (a funny and fine Jalynn Steele) and abusive stepfather. Things take a turn for the worst when a Minotaur ambushes him and his mother as she tries to hide him at a camp. Percy ends up losing his mother and finds himself situated at Camp Half-Blood, a warrior-building camp for mortal children of the Greek gods. Then Percy is framed for the theft of Zeus’s lightning bolt, so he and half-blood buddies go on an odyssey—ahem, “Killer Quest”—to retrieve Zeus’s lightning bolt, learn to control his godly powers, and save his mother from the Underworld.

Quite importantly, this production boasts a spot-on leading cast where rapport is immediate and intact. McCarrell is a pitch-perfect Percy with the gangly awkwardness and an earnestness to be useful to the world, and you feel for the guy as he sings “Good Kid” and when he’s told for the umpteenth time he is expelled. Jorrell Javier as Grover the satyr is the loyal heart and Kristen Stokes makes a fine laid-back and resentful Annabeth, who pines for the approval of her goddess-mom Athena. Percy’s cabin counselor, Luke, is played by an affable James Hayden Rodriguez. But the real scene-stealing stand-out is Ryan Knowles as the chestnut-voiced centaur mentor Chiron, and Knowles swerves immaculately into other roles, such as the screeching Medusa, a hilarious Paul-Lynde take on Hades, and surfer-dude Poseidon.

The helter-skelter choreography by Patrick McCollum and fight direction by Rod Kinter aren’t distinctive but they sustain the speed of the musical. Most of the fun derives from kooky mannerisms, such as Knowles’s clip-clopping horsey prance as Chiron, the frazzled God-of-Alcohol Mr. D’s (that’s Dionysus) gravely hollering, and the nasal substitute teacher who’s revealed to be a bat-winged Fury. However, the songs are more serviceably catchy to its young demographic than truly compelling. The best of Rob Rokicki’s pop-rock music & lyrics never quite bang near the Be More Chill “Michael in the Bathroom” poignancy. There are rib-cracking moments in “Campfire Song” about kids’ respective godly-parental woes, Mr. D’s frazzled number “Another Terrible Day,” and a tour of Hell set to the disco “D.O.A.”, but emotions peak the most with “The Tree on the Hill,” divulging its own mythos and cuttingly personal to its players. 

With a set comprised of Greek columns over graffitied background and a scaffolding, The Lightning Thief goes for a low-tech design that may sound gimmicky in concept but elevates it into makeshift humorous charm, as if young casual Percy Jackson fans with a budget cobbled supplies together, found humor and magic in make-believe, and had a good time. An actor representing a dolphin wears a dolphin plushy cap, leaf-blowers stream out toilet paper when Percy channels his sea powers, and the oracle in the attic bears a billowing gown that appears sewn from printed bedsheets. The visual effects mechanics are almost always nearly visible in recreating battles with scrappy props. Take for example, when Percy is tossed a pen—the Riptide—that will shapeshift into his sword. He visibly does not catch the pen, but a shadowy stagehand swiftly passes a sword and when the teacher reveals herself as a Fury and stagehands rush in to hand her the wings. Miraculously, the velocity of those visible mechanics has seamless magic. I also can’t help to think that staging The Percy Jackson Musical, which had its 2017 well-received off-Broadway run in the 229-capacity Lucille Lortel Theatre, is better suited for an immersive or tighter venue. 

The ones who will get the most out of this musical is, of course, kids and adults with affection for the book. For kids and parents who haven’t picked up the book, this musical might be a fun family-friendly entertainment. As someone who read book one, did the musical’s earnest themes and angst resonate with me personally? Not intimately. But regardless, it never condescends with its message about embracing your abnormality and is keen on validating adolescent pain. As Percy’s mother tells him, normal is a myth.

***

The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical is now playing at the Longacre Theater in NYC until January 5, 2020.

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