Adapted from the best-selling young adult novel by Rick Riordan, The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical, now in its Broadway debut at the Longacre Theatre (following a blockbuster Off-Broadway run at the Lucile Lortel Theatre in 2017), is an inventive symbolic campy conflation of present-day fantasy, outsider struggles, and ancient Greek mythology, which not only introduces audiences to the age-old legends, but also encourages theatergoers of all ages to use our imaginations, and, most importantly, to be accepting of ourselves and of those who are different. Win/win/win.
The action-packed musical adventure, with book by Joe Tracz and music and lyrics by Rob Rokicki, weaves a complex tale around the young protagonist Percy Jackson – a post-modern tween with a loving mother and absentee father, ADHD and dyslexia, few friends and multiple expulsions from school, who has a hard time fitting in and being “normal.” After it’s revealed to him that “normal is a myth” and he’s really a demi-god (half human and half god), he is sent to “Camp Half-Blood,” where he spends the summer with other kids like him, discovers that he is the progeny of his mortal mother and Poseidon (Greek god of the sea), and embarks on a visionary “Killer Quest” to avert a war between the gods by recovering the lightning bolt stolen from Zeus (a theft unjustly blamed on Percy’s father), while battling monsters and other obstacles along the way (a metaphor for the challenges faced in the real world).
Directed with a high-energy spirit of over-the-top wacky humor and enthusiastic youthful fun by Stephen Brackett, a cast of seven assumes the guises of 47 characters in an epic slugfest of good versus evil and coming of age conquering adolescent angst. While the first act develops slowly as the characters and their situations are introduced (and the loud high-pitched female vocals can be a bit jarring), the second act comes together, picks up the pace, and becomes increasingly engaging. And though the actors are (and look) considerably older than their juvenile characters, they deliver all the requisite attitudes and behavior, from ebullience to anger, impetuousness to full-out zaniness, parent-blaming to self-discovering maturation. They also capture the essence of the iconic gods and myths they personify in contemporary terms – sometimes parodic, sometimes frightening, often insightful – as cleverly written by Tracz and Rokicki.
Chris McCarrell stars as Percy (his name derived from the Greek demi-god Perseus) and brings irresistible charm and likeability to the young hero, a spot-on deadpan delivery of his most hilariously cynical lines, and a pleasant, empathetic, and emotive voice to his songs, perfectly expressing his innate awareness that, despite his problems, he’s a “Good Kid” with a vivid imagination (“The Weirdest Dream”). Kristen Stokes as Annabeth, the daughter of Athena (goddess of wisdom), joins him on his journey, teaches him how to hold a sword properly, and represents the self-possessed (and somewhat intimidating!) strength and knowledge of a budding feminist (with a terrific solo on “My Grand Plan”).
They are accompanied on the quest by Percy’s BFF and nature-lover Grover (a satyr, occasionally seen with the legs of a goat), portrayed with gusto by Jorrel Javier, who, like the rest of the supporting cast, plays multiple roles in the musical, and defines each with distinctive individuality. He touches us with his heartfelt rendition of “The Tree on the Hill,” delights in his earnest conversation with a helpful squirrel, and goes full-out in his frenetic caricature of the cantankerous and wildly-dressed camp director Mr. D (Dionysus, Greek god of wine). Ryan Knowles, too, shows an impressive range in his characterizations, from Percy’s scholarly teacher to his arch-enemy Mrs. M (a sidesplitting present-day drag parody of the snake-haired Medusa), as does Jalynn Steele as Percy’s supportive mom Sally and the sequin-clad Charon, his conductor to the underworld (the 1960s girl-group stylings of her lead performance on the song-and-dance spectacular “D.O.A.” is one of the highlights of the show). Rounding out the supporting cast are James Hayden Rodriguez in the pivotal role of Luke (and other assorted characters) and Sarah Beth Pfeifer in a variety of parts, but bringing the big laughs as the voice of the chattering squirrel.
A simple but meaningful set by Lee Savage integrates classical fluted columns marked with graffiti (which was also prevalent in ancient Greece) into a post-modern construction site and scaffolding, smartly referencing the story’s synthesis of then and now. Lighting by David Lander is colorful, blinding, flashing, and dramatic (coupled with mysterious fog effects), and eye-catching costumes by Sydney Maresca (with monsters that recall the makeshift Halloween creations made by kids for trick-or-treating) add to the overall visual excitement. They are augmented by fluid well-staged episodes of mortal combat (fight direction by Rod Kinter) and vibrant segments of exuberant contemporary dance and movement by choreographer Patrick McCollum, all set to Rokicki’s pulsating original rock score and heightened by Ryan Rumery’s evocative sound design.
Young audiences familiar with the best-selling books will be delighted to see their favorite characters brought to life on stage with dazzling special effects in this creative family-friendly production of The Lightning Thief. If you’re an adult who’s new to the kid-centric subject, you will have the opportunity to see what all their enthusiasm is about, while revisiting the growing pains of youth and using your imagination to recapture a childlike sense of fantasy and wonderment.
Running Time: Approximately two hours, including an intermission.