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A CurtainUp Review
The Lightning Thief

"Oh, things couldn't be worse when your parents run the universe" — Camp Half-Blood Campers
Chris McCarrell as Percy Jackson (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)
If you had told me at age 12 that my two favorite literary protagonists — Harry Potter and Percy Jackson — would be headlining Broadway shows side-by-side in less than 15 years, I can't imagine I would have believed you. (Especially if you added that Spongebob would have already come and gone.) But now that the new musical of Percy's first adventure, The Lightning Thief , has opened on Broadway, I'm glad I didn't spend the last decade and a half trembling with anticipation.

I was right in the heart of the school-age target audience when Percy broke through, the most prominent of the pack of post-Potter heroes to become his own phenomenon. Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson & The Olympians series (which began with five books in the early 2000s and then begat additional, still ongoing related series) had an arresting premise: what if the Greek gods, in their immortality, continue to have lots of half-mortal children with demi-divine powers (which usually manifest through ADHD and dyslexia)?

Percy can't stay at one school for very long before something goes terribly wrong. But after he's attacked by a new math teacher who's a real harpy (the Greek mythology kind), Percy finally finds out why he can't sit still: he's half-god, half-human. Camp Half-Blood introduces Percy to kids who have powers just like his, but, once Percy finds out which Olympian is his dad, he's catapulted via prophecy into a dramatic odyssey of his own.

In book form, in addition to a godly parent and a learning disability, Percy had something else Harry never did: an addictive first-person persona, a little bit smart-alecky and oh so smart, despite his teachers' underestimations. (The first, brilliant chapter of the original Lightning Thief is entitled "I Accidentally Vaporize My Pre-algebra Teacher.") It was Percy's one-of-a-kind perspective that catapulted the series to bestseller lists and kids' hearts (the elementary-age students I work with still adore him now).

And there's lots to love about Chris McCarrell, doing Percy Jackson justice at the Longacre Theatre, and infusing him with both extra sass and a hip edginess that feels fresh but not off-brand. Whether he's battling harpies and minotaurs or bashfully trying to mask his crush on Annabeth (Kristin Stokes), the fierce daughter of Athena, McCarrell's like a punk Evan Hansen, completely believable and totally charming.

It was, among other things, the absence of Percy's wisecracking narrative voice that sank the 2010 film adaptation of The Lightning Thief , widely regarded (including by Riordan) as a somber-faced embarrassment. And though Percy's latest quest to Broadway is neither embarrassing or somber, this meandering musical still has that same sort of central problem: good as McCarrell is, the spirit of Percy Jackson hasn't permeated the score, the staging, or the storytelling.

Let's start with the score. Rob Rokicki's catalog of rock songs sound just like everything else. The lyrics fall just short of Percy-worthy cleverness, like someone trying very hard to wink who looks instead like he might have something in his eye. One goofy exception is the Act 2 opener, "Lost!," in which Rokicki sheds his usual angsty rocker vibe for something more William Finn-like as Percy, Annabeth, and their friend Grover, a satyr, lament that they're "lost in the woods, somewhere in New Jersey, and we're never gonna make it to L. A."

It's too bad that the score never tries to capture Percy's off-kilter, sometimes distracted and sometimes hyper, way of seeing the world. And, as a result, The Lightning Thief never makes the case for why it should be a musical. Perhaps, especially given that the show's highlights come from the silly but sturdy book by Be More Chill's Joe Tracz, it needn't be a musical at all. Too many of the musical numbers (including an endless one for Dionysus and a dull Capture the Flag sequence) seem to emerge from a necessity to fill a full evening rather than from any character's unquenchable need for expression through song. (The original Theatreworks production in 2017 was just an hour, which probably helped to narrow the focus.)

There's plenty of non-musical appeal in Stephen Brackett's inventive staging, particularly effective when it leans into low-budget solutions for fantastical scenarios. (One of the slickest of those effects should come with a warning: if you sit too close, you may wind up covered in toilet paper.) The story theater aesthetic, when it's present, animates the narrative, and the zany puppetry design by Achesonwalsh Studios nicely matches Sydney Maresca's playful costumes.

Elsewhere, though, the production betrays its own wacky instincts, with alternately gloomy and audience-blinding lighting plus a grungy scaffolding set, all of which seems to shout out, much too loudly, "This is not just a kids' show!" Which, of course, it is, and the creative team would be better off wearing that badge proudly, as do the over-the-top and more-than-capable cast of seven (I honestly thought it was at least ten, until I looked at the Playbill post-show) who have fun cycling through a panoply of characters.

Especially engaging are Jalynn Steele as Percy's sweet, strong mother plus a rafters-raising Charon (ferrywoman to the underworld) and the busy Ryan Knowles, as Hades, Poseidon, a very hammy Medusa, and also the ghost of Kurt Cobain. But the overstuffed goodies of the performances come with a price. In trying to deliver a whole lot of plot and also make the fans happy with fly-by cameos from minor characters, the second act gradually melts into a numbing series of odyssey pit stops and monster battles, none of which seem terrifically important.

And while there's a sort of satisfying denial of the traditional happily ever after — the show preserves Riordan's cliffhanger ending for Book 1 — the plot's refusal to resolve speaks to the challenge of adapting just one-fifth of a sprawling story. (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child's creators were wise to construct a stand-alone story.)

For many young people, Percy's story mattered so much because Riordan's books didn't just show a kid with ADHD overcoming a challenge: instead, The Lightning Thief celebrated all the surprising, powerful corners of its hero's brain. (The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-time is one show that comes to mind which pooled its resources into building a world as seen through a very specific neuroatypical mind.) Even with McCarrell fighting his own battle to transcend what he's been given to work with, there's little to be found in The Lightning Thief on Broadway which does what its source material did so cunningly — delve into the mind of an ordinary kid and find something truly extraordinary inside just bursting to break free.

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Rob Rokicki (music/lyrics) and Joe Tracz (book)
Based on the book by Rick Riordan
Directed by Stephen Brackettl
Cast: Jorrel Javier, Ryan Knowles, Chris McCarrell, Sarah Beth Pfeifer, James Hayden Rodriguez, Jalynn Steele, and Kristin Stokes
Set Designer: Lee Savage
Costume Designer: Sydney Maresca
Lighting Designer: David Lander
Sound Designer: Ryan Rumery
Choreographer: Patrick McCollum
Running Time: 2 hours with an intermission
Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street
From 9/20/19; opening 10/16/19; closing 1/5/2020
Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays at 7, Fridays at 8, Saturdays at 2 and 8, and Sundays at 1 and 6:30
Reviewed by Dan Rubins at 10/11 performance

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