TheaterWorksUSA’s stage version of Rick Riordan’s best-selling novel, The Lighting Thief, about Percy Jackson and other demi-gods, first seen in 2014, has reached Broadway in the expanded two act format that played at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in 2017 and subsequently toured the country. For those of us who saw the show previously, Stephen Brackett has redirected it so that it has lost all its charm as it attempts to intensify its effects for the Broadway stage. Using four of the original Off Broadway actors and three new ones, the teen characters are now pushing too hard, and come across as angry and belligerent, rather than curious and inquiring. While it is the same physical production except for a much more elaborate lighting design by David Lander, the sets on Broadway now seem deficient and second-rate.
The fast-paced fantasy-adventure story would not seem to be destined for the stage due to the number of special effects needed to tell the story. However, designer Lee Savage and other technicians have come up with a series of clever low tech solutions which are always inventive and always witty. Using masks, puppets and elaborate costuming, five members of the cast of seven play multiple roles which often require quick changes.
Joe Tracz’s libretto is quite faithful to the original novel and will not disappoint avid Rick Riordan fans. As a result of having to fight a Fury at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a class field trip, Percy Jackson who suffers from ADHD as well as dyslexia is expelled from his Manhattan junior high school. He is surprised when his mother takes him to a safe haven on Long Island, Camp Half Blood, where demi-gods, the sons and daughters of the Greek gods go to learn how to deal with the real world and occasionally obtain a personal quest. There Percy meets his best friend, the nerdy Grover, who is actually a satyr and a relative of the god Pan; Annabeth, beautiful daughter of Athena; camp counselor Luke, wily son of Hermes, Silena, romantic daughter of Aphrodite; Clarisse, tough daughter of Ares, and cranky and caustic camp director Mr. D., aka Dionysus who is the god of wine. Even his benevolent Latin teacher, Mr. Brunner, from Manhattan turns up in his real form as Chiron, the wise centaur.
However, Percy does not suspect who his real father is, but when he wins the Capture the Flag contest by accidentally using water, it is evident that his father is Poseidon, god of the sea. When Zeus’ thunderbolt goes missing, Percy is accused of the crime and told he must go on a quest to Hades, which turns out to be in Los Angeles. He is told that he must “go west to face the treacherous lord,” “find what was stolen, and see it restored. However, he is warned that he “shall be betrayed by one who calls you friend.” At first he refuses, until he is reminded that he will find his mother in Hades after her fatal encounter with a Minotaur in order to save him.
Proceeding on his cross country trip, Percy is accompanied by Annabeth who has never had her own quest, and Grover, his guardian angel, who has failed in his last one. On the way, they must fight the Furies, stay out of the way of the wrath of Medusa, take a motorcycle ride with Ares, and avoid The Lotus Hotel. Arriving at the lobby of DOA Records, they discover that Charon, the female ferryperson to the Underworld, is a diva who wants to be a recording star. Percy is confronted with the Pit of Tartarus and the titan Kronos, Hades himself, and finally meets his Dad, Poseidon. All is resolved but Percy, Annabeth and Grover know that they are just at the beginning of their tumultuous lives and adventures.
The score by Rob Rokicki is made up of loud, pulsating hard rock numbers and low-key pop ballads. Ironically, it is the pop songs which work the best in the context of the show as the words of the cunning and skillful teenage paeans to adolescence can be heard over the music. The main characters each have a passionate solo ballad in which he or she reveals what is troubling them the most: Percy’s “Good Kid,” Annabeth’s “My Grand Plan,” and Grover’s “The Tree on the Hill.” However, in this production the singers all seem to be pushing too hard which diminishes the effectiveness of these songs.
Brackett’s direction is now rather strained and frenetic but the transitions between sequences are still handled quickly as cinema cuts. While Savage’s seemingly cut-rate unit set is mainly Greek columns and scaffolding, various items are used for special locales like the museum, the camp, the bus, Hades, etc. Sydney Maresca’s costumes and the uncredited masks transform the characters so that some of them are unrecognizable in their various roles. Ryan Rumery, whose sound design includes off-stage voices of the unseen gods as well as necessary sounds on the adventure, has made the music and songs louder than before so that many of the words are lost.
While the youthful members of the cast were previously played by actors much older than the junior high school age characters in the book, they seem to be making up for the fact that they are two years old than they were when they first played these parts by being louder and more vociferous. In the title role, Chris McCarrell, who has appeared on Broadway in the most recent revival of Les Miserables as Marius and on television in Peter Pan Live!, is less personable as the conflicted youth who is a reluctant hero – and more belligerent. However, his confusion and surprise as to what he has gotten himself into is always credible. Kristin Stokes, who has been with the show since its first workshop, a lovely Annabeth who is never overbearing in always being the smartest person in the room, is now more tense. Replacing George Salazar as both the sad-sack Grover with his goat half, and the outrageous, angry Mr. D. who seems to hate his job watching over the demi-gods at Camp Half Blood, Jorrel Javier is overly comical as Grover and more irate as Dionysus, god of wine, the snarky camp director.
James Hayden Rodriguez as the show’s villains (the two-timing Luke, the god of war Ares attired in red leather like a rock star, the Minotaur totally hidden by a huge bull’s head, as well as Percy’s unpleasant and smelly step-father Gabe) seems tamer than before. Sarah Beth Pfeifer gets the biggest workout playing eight roles, from Mrs. Dodds, a Fury posing as a substitute algebra teacher, who has a sword fight with Percy to the tough jock girl Clarisse at camp to the late Janis Joplin in Hades.
Joining the original Off Broadway cast, Ryan Knowles shows tremendous versatility returning again and again in totally different characterizations and costumes: the compassionate Latin teacher Mr. Brunner in a wheelchair, the wise centaur Chiron with a swishing tail, the cool Poseidon dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, the sinister Aunty Em aka Medusa, and Hades, god of the dead, an aging rock star. His use of different voices for each character is a great deal of fun. Jalynn Steele plays a range of roles from adults to teenagers and everything in between: she is rather uncomfortable as Percy’s mother Sally but almost blows the roof off the theater as the diva/ferryperson Charon at the gates of Hades when she sings “D.O.A.”
James Hayden Rodriguez as the show’s villains: the two-timing Luke, the god of war Ares attired in red leather like a rock star, the Minotaur totally hidden by a huge bull’s head, as well as Percy’s unpleasant and smelly step-father Gabe, he seems tamer than before. Sarah Beth Pfeifer gets the biggest workout playing eight roles, from Mrs. Dodds, a Fury posing as a substitute algebra teacher, who has a sword fight with Percy to the tough jock girl Clarisse at camp to the late Janis Joplin in Hades.
The Lightning Thief – The Percy Jackson Musical settles down a bit more in the second act and becomes more engrossing but the damage has been done. The actors in the first act all seem to be racing for a train and the sound levels continue to damage many of the songs throughout the show. The show remains an excellent introduction to Greek mythology made relevant for our own time. Faithful to the source material, it may please both teens who have read the book and those who have not. The five of the seven-member cast playing 28 roles demonstrates their versatility as they change from one colorful three-dimensional character to another. If only the director and the production had trusted the original show and did not feel it necessary to make it bigger and better for Broadway, a common complaint when shows make the move from their smaller Off Broadway venues.
The Lightning Thief – The Percy Jackson Musical (through January 5, 2020)
Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.lightningthiefmusical.com
Running time: two hours and ten minutes with one intermission