Review: ‘The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical’ at the Kennedy Center

Life is hard enough when growing up, but when you find out that you’re the son of a god, the stakes get even higher. Armed with friends and a pen, Percy Jackson explores the world of newly discovered powers, demigods, and monsters on a quest to find the thief who stole Zeus’ lightning before all-out war breaks out between the gods. Based on the popular fiction series by Rick Riordan, The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical combines Drama Desk-nominated book by Joe Tracz, music and lyrics by Rob Rokicki, and direction by Stephen Brackett to take a hero’s quest and give it a shocking twist.

The company of 'Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical.' Photo by Jeremy Daniel.
The company of ‘Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical.’ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Feeling his way through his growing identity and powers was Percy Jackson himself played by Chris McCarrell. Wracked with initial insecurity manifested in twitches, stutters, and a stammer, McCarrell synced well with Percy’s adolescent self-doubt. Add those physical quirks with an excellent sense of delivery, timing, and some pretty serious angsty belts and this adolescent rock musical took off at the speed of lightning. Nowhere was there a better example of this than in “Good Kid” where McCarrell’s performance was as earnest as it was heartbreaking.

Along for the fight was the determined daughter of Athena, Annabeth, played by Kristin Stokes and a lovably goofy satyr, Grover, played by Jorrel Javier. Balancing out Percy in battle strategy on one side and overall fear on the other, the terrific trio banded together to fight the demons of this world and of their own making. Grappling with questions of identity, worth, and strength, each found a way to forge ahead for the sake of the others and in doing so emerged stronger. A breakout moment for me with Annabeth was during “My Grand Plan.” While there were many great examples of character solidifying songs in this production, this one allowed Stokes to really twist home the confusion that comes with growing up as a girl, paired with beautifully pleading vocals.

The rest of the cast was equally strong and multifaceted. Ryan Knowles as Chiron, Hades, and Medusa (to name a few) was a scene stealer every time he stepped, wheeled, or galloped on stage. His remarkable range of intricately layered personas were fascinating to watch unfold and were always perfectly balanced on the edge of ridiculous and delightful, for adults and kids alike. Jalynn Steele as Sally, the oracle, and Charon had touching deep and silky vocals that I could have listened to all night long. “D.O.A” was filled with sass and power, while “Strong” was as nostalgic as (blue) marshmallows and campfire memories.

Chris McCarrell and James Hayden Rodriguez. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

James Hayden Rodriguez as Luke did an excellent job of slowly ramping up the turmoil as the evening progressed—particularly in “The Last Day of Summer”—and as Ares, Rodriguez was one slick god of war. Last but certainly not least, Sarah Beth Pfeifer as Fury and Clarisse was a fiery combination of feisty and conviction, bringing electric rock screams in “Put You In Your Place”.

Backing up the impressive cast was an equally solid production team. The overall direction by Stephen Brackett was layered so that both kid and adult could find and identify with elements of the show. Obie Award-winning Sound Design by Ryan Rumery brought the rock of this rock musical and Scenic Design by Lee Savage perfectly framed this epic hero’s adventure with familiar items of our mere mortal world. Lighting Design by David Lander cleverly used minimalist light strips to create a concert-like feel and an atmosphere even before the curtain fell. And I also appreciated the use of light and fog for the fight scenes, setting them apart from the narrative arches in order to drive the stakes higher. Rounding out production team was dynamic choreography by Patrick McCollum and some pretty inventive puppets by Achesonwalsh Studios, creating a truly immersive godly world.

Turning the classical ideas of Greek mythology on their head by calling on heroes to claim their own destiny, The Lightning Thief challenges its characters and audiences alike to not wait for the change they want to see in the world but to be that change for the better. A delightful adventure from start to finish, The Lightning Thief was the kind of musical that makes it easy for kids and kids at heart to connect with the need for adventure and belonging inside us all.

Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission

The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical played through February 17th at The Kennedy Center – 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC. Tickets are available at the box office (202) 467-4600/(800) 444-1324 or online.

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Em Skow
Ever since she can remember, Em Skow has been transfixed by the performing arts and sought to submerse herself in them in any way she could. She started singing in choirs in elementary school, added theater productions in middle and high school, picked up an English Creative Writing Bachelor's degree and a photography passion in college, and, now - a good handful of years later - is keeping each as a part of her life here in D.C. By day, she's a Communications Professional. By night, she's a PR and Corporate Communications masters student at Georgetown University; Soprano & Communications Manager of the 18th Street Singers; and Theater Reviewer for the one and only DC Metro Theater Arts. All-in-all, a self-professed theater, choral, arts nerd, and she likes it that way.