If Percy Jackson’s bright and lively Broadway adventure tosses a bit of deja vu your way, I’d guess the creeping sense of vague recall has little to do with that gang of Greek gods down the block belting out tunes from Hadestown, and even less to do with Percy’s plodding 2010 film. I’d smell a Squip.
Sharing some of its creative team (director Stephen Brackett, book writer Joe Tracz, sound designer Ryan Rumery and the witty, inventive and sadly final wig and make-up creations of Dave Bova, who died in May at 41) with Broadway’s recent (and brighter and livelier) Be More Chill, the newly arrived The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical, can seem like a warm-up for that musical. Both shows begin with their young, charmingly sheepish male protagonists introducing themselves in opening big-number songs that draw in the rest of the cast, both give their sweetly nerdy best friends a spotlight song, both pump up their plots with a MacGuffin (a stolen lightning bolt here, a Squip there) and both put their energetic fresh-faced ensemble casts through their rock-beat paces, with youthful zest played off striking visual designs (the sci-fi Chill‘s flashy gizmodernism contrasting neatly against Lightning‘s DIY, make-do cleverness).
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The earliest version of Lightning was staged in 2014, a year before Chill, and though Percy & Co no doubt were put through many changes and much development over the years, the current production, though fun, just doesn’t have the eccentric appeal or, more significantly, the geeky poignance (poignant geekiness?) of the gone-too-soon Chill.
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But if comparisons do Lightning Thief no big favors, the show and its cast, particularly the boyishly engaging (and vocally blessed) Chris McCarrell as Percy, offer victories all their own, none more winning than an overall exuberance that holds our attention even when the storytelling gets so convoluted and now-who’s-that-again? confusing (at more than one point I’d have welcomed one of those gods from a machine that the real ancient Greeks were so fond of).
To summarize: The teenaged Percy Jackson, tossed out of one school after another when his ADHD and dyslexia hold him back academically, discovers the true cause of his misfit nature: He’s a demi-god, the son of Poseidon, his difficulty reading modern English the result of an innate affinity for ancient languages, his impulsiveness the consequence of a battle-primed spirit.
Based on the first entry in Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson YA book series, the tale follows Percy as he arrives at Camp Half-Blood, a sort of boot camp for young demigods, befriends others of his kind (including best pal Grove, a satyr who delights in his own otherness – not unlike Chill‘s Michael, of the bathroom fame).
When his beloved (and mortal) mother is kidnapped by Hades, Percy and pals head off to the underworld for a rescue, along the way getting accused of stealing Zeus’ lightning bolt (planted among Percy’s belongings by the conniving thief of the title). So the kidnapping, the thievery, a threatened war among the gods, and the usual teen angst tangle and angle over the course of two acts before arriving at their myth-making resolution.
If its wrap-up seems a bit anti-climactic, it’s less the storyline’s fault than Lightning‘s fast, action-packed pacing, a zero-to-60 momentum that starts around the time, very early on, that Percy’s buttinsky substitute teacher reveals herself to be a winged demon and doesn’t let up until well after that jar of lightning has been returned to its rightful god and the exonerated Percy readies for his next adventure.
Since its earliest 60-minute stagings as part of Theatreworks USA’s free children-focused theatre series, Lightning Thief has replaced recorded music for a live band, updated its appealing, if not overly memorable, rock score (music and lyrics by Broadway newcomer Rob Rokicki), lengthened its running time and developed its plot. A company of seven actors play, in total, nearly 50 characters.
All to fine effect, I can only suppose since I’m seeing the show for the first time, but what strikes me as the production’s most appealing quality is likely a holdover from those early days – a decidedly threadbare charm. Lee Savage’s set design consists of some near-crumbling Greek columns and backstage scaffolding, with the various creatures a blend of costume (by Sydney Maresca) and puppetry (Achesonwalsh Studios) that take a childlike delight in their own tossed-together design. When that substitute teacher morphs into something else entirely, she does so with the assistance of stagehands toting and assembling wings and other dragon-like bits that seem like a witty, thrifty take on Marianne Elliott’s lavish War Horse and Angels in America creatures.
The indefatigable cast, given loads of stage business by director Brackett and clever lines by Tracz (whose credits, besides Chill, include Netflix’s wildly inventive Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events), pulls everything together. Each performer taking on any number of roles (except for McCarrell and, as the Hermione to his Harry, Kristin Stokes), the cast includes Izzy Figueroa, Jorrel Javier, Ryan Knowles, Sam Leicht, Sarah Beth Pfeifer, James Hayden Rodriguez, Jalynn Steele and T. Shyvonne Stewart.
Having honed their characterizations on a North American tour, the performers arrive on Broadway ready to make it their very own playground. The Lightning Thief makes a personable and accommodating companion.
The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical, a TheaterWorksUSA and Martian Entertainment presentation, opens tonight for a 16-week limited engagement at the Longacre Theatre.
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