By Samuel L. Leiter
Perhaps, like me, you didn’t notice that, beneath the Harry Potter hoopla of the past two decades, a series of young adult novels about another boy with supernatural powers was gaining huge popularity. That boy, Percy Jackson, came to life in the imagination of a middle school history/English teacher named Rick Riordan, who entertained his second-grade son, afflicted—like Percy—with ADHD and dyslexia, by making up stories based on Greek mythology.
Those stories inspired a best-selling series that led not only to several sequel series but (thus far) to a pair of box-office blockbuster movies. Now, with a book by Joe Tracz and music and lyrics by Rob Rokicki, the first Percy Jackson book, The Lightning Thief, has been transformed into an energetic, generally entertaining rock musical for the seven-years-old-and-up crowd. They gave it a standing ovation when I attended.
Produced by Theatreworks, renowned for its high-quality, young-audience shows, The Lightning Thief is a fast-paced, decibel-blasting, theatrically frisky take on the original story. Unlike the visually bloated film, the show uses only seven actors, all of them adults, most playing multiple roles.
Tracz’s by-and-large faithful book—which expresses several themes, such as that normalcy is a myth and everyone is special, and that parents can be idols with feet of clay—begins with teenager Percy (Chris McCarrell)—he’s twelve in the book—having a weird experience during a field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Later, after his mother, Sally (Carrie Compere), vanishes following his victorious battle with a Minotaur (James Hayden Rodriguez), Percy and his best friend, Grover, by now revealed as a satyr, enter the strange Camp Half-Blood.
Here Percy discovers he’s actually Perseus, a demigod, half-human and half-god, the son of Poseidon. If Perseus is here, can Medusa (Jonathan Raviv, in drag) be far behind? He also encounters other demigod kids, including Annabeth (Kristen Stokes), daughter of Athena; Luke (James Hayden 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, Hades (Raviv), in whose realm Sally is a prisoner and Charon (Compere) is an overstuffed, Beyoncé-like, pop singer in a sequined minidress. And where, by the way, we glimpse Kurt Cobain (Raviv), Janis Joplin (Pfeifer), and Mozart (Rodriguez).
Percy, with his magic sword and special powers (a comic surprise unlike what the book describes), must fend off an unexpected foe before all comes to its foregone happy conclusion. (The fun fight direction is by Rob Kinter.)
To pack all this in, the show, directed with verve by Stephen Brackett and spiritedly choreographed by Patrick McCollum, adopts an air of deliberate, even self-deprecatory playfulness; this keeps the budget down and highlights its air of tongue-in-cheekiness. It’s the kind of thing where someone, hearing about hell’s musical stars, asks if Josh Groban is there; more such jokes would be welcome, even if they soar over most kids’ heads.
Rokicki’s conventional rock score—played on keyboards, drums/percussion, guitar, and bass—is a listenable, efficient engine for keeping the show moving but most of its songs are of the undistinguished, volume-up variety; only two even hint at standard balladry.
This is a solid ensemble, with good work from all, including the slender, tousle-haired McCarrell; the dynamic, big-voiced Compere; and the comic Salazar, who scores as both the sidekick satyr and the always-shouting Dionysus (he’s the god of drama, after all).
Sydney Maresca has crafted numerous, clever, cost-cutting designs, like, for example, that for Chiron (Raviv), the centaur. In the film, Pierce Brosnan’s lower body is digitally morphed into that of a horse. Here, the character needs only a white shirt, sports jacket, leather slacks, high shoes, a bushy tail, and some equine movements to make you see a human horse.
The same don’t-take-this-seriously approach affects the various monsters whose deliberately cheesy scariness is heightened by smoke and David Lander’s fancy lighting, much of the latter in eye-catching, rock concert mode. It works well with set designer Lee Savage’s use of metal scaffolding fronting a background of graffiti-scrawled Greek pillars; the walls and their backstage equipment are exposed, and a pair of rolling scaffold-platforms is deployed for miscellaneous purposes. Ryan Rumery’s ingenious sound effects complete the package.
Finding a show most kids would enjoy can be like catching lightning in a bottle. Bringing a kid to The Lightning Thief might be like bringing your own bottle.
The Lightning Thief
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher St., NYC
Through May 6
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).