The Lightning Thief

Poor, put-upon Percy Jackson. All he wants is to stay at the same school for more than a year. And have more than one friend. And not get in trouble all the time. And not have attention deficit disorder. Or such a rude, acrid stepdad. And if only that minotaur hadn’t killed his mom…

The story of the hyper-plotted The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical is taken from Rick Riordan’s Harry Potter–lite Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, one of the better, and certainly one of the more popular, young adult serials in the aughts to capitalize on the public’s ravenous post-Potter yen for stories about magical, beleaguered pre-teens.

Percy (Chris McCarrell, left) gets a tongue-lashing from Mr. D (George Salazar) at Camp Half-Blood. Top: Percy meets the Oracle (Carrie Compere), but can she be trusted?

Percy (Chris McCarrell, left) gets a tongue-lashing from Mr. D (George Salazar) at Camp Half-Blood. Top: Percy meets the Oracle (Carrie Compere), but can she be trusted?

Like the bespectacled boy wizard, Percy (Chris McCarrell) doesn’t initially know he has special powers. A series of increasingly strange events, including a sword fight with a demonic substitute teacher (we’ve all been there), Percy’s best friend Grover (George Salazar) sprouting goat legs, and the death of Percy’s mother (Carrie Compere), leads Percy to Camp Half-Blood on Long Island. Apparently the Greek gods enjoy dallying with mortals but not all that child-rearing stuff that comes after, so Camp Half-Blood has been set up as a sanctuary-cum-Best Summer Camp Ever where their offspring can gather to vent feelings and engage in potentially deadly rounds of Capture the Flag. Or, as the play itself says in one of its best lines, “The gods are real, and they have kids, and those kids have issues.”

They also have plot. Loads and loads of it. The seven-strong company (which also includes Sarah Beth Pfeifer, Jonathan Raviv, James Hayden Rodriguez, and Kristin Stokes), may be the hardest-working ensemble in New York; The Lightning Thief is constantly in motion. In addition to moving set pieces and performing all the special effects, most of the actors play several roles, making the cast, and by extension the world of the play, feel much bigger than it actually is.

Walls of "water." From left: Kristin Stokes, McCarrell, James Hayden Rodriguez, Salazar. 

Walls of "water." From left: Kristin Stokes, McCarrell, James Hayden Rodriguez, Salazar. 

That vibrancy feels right for this story; like Percy, the play has an abundance of energy and not much focus. With a novel’s-worth of ground to cover in two hours, the production favors incident over emotion, and potentially impactful moments are shorn of any dramatic heft. Narrative logic is also sacrificed on the altar; a character is stabbed in the back late in the play, but stands right up a few moments later, seemingly unaffected, because the story demands it.

Lee Savage’s set design is an assemblage of Doric columns, graffiti, scaffolding and household items; call it “shabby Greek.” The DIY aesthetic is hit-or-miss; when it hits, as when two clothes racks come together to form a bus, or a work light and a set of handlebars become a motorcycle, it provides a pleasing low-tech kick of the kind live performance does well. When it misses, as when walls of water are conjured by toilet paper rolls attached to leaf blowers, it gives the show a tawdry patina that undermines the story’s epic contours and feels suspiciously like condescension to the kids in the audience.

In a recent Playbill interview, librettist Joe Tracz said that Percy Jackson’s story “had to be a musical” because “the world of the Gods is so big and epic,” and therein lies perhaps The Lightning Thief’s greatest miscalculation. By falling into the trap of equating music with size, Tracz and composer/lyricist Rob Rokicki have written songs that complicate and confuse an already overstuffed confection. It’s not until Act II, in fact, with the entertaining numbers “Drive” and “D.O.A.”, that the score begins to feel essential to the show’s fabric. Coupled with a murky sound design that becomes unintelligible anytime more than one person sings, the routine pop-rock score and facile lyrics too often impede the narrative, instead of deepening it.

From left: Rodriguez, Stokes, Salazar. Photographs by Jeremy Daniels.

From left: Rodriguez, Stokes, Salazar. Photographs by Jeremy Daniels.

The Lightning Thief is not incompetent—far from it. It simply suffers from the common belief that children’s theater needs to close its loops, sand down its edges, and distill its themes into easily digestible life lessons.

Thank goodness, then, for the breezy performers. The show may not sing, but McCarrell does, with brio. His reedy, under-construction falsetto and feverish buoyancy make the show watchable. Compere, a memorably sharp church lady in the recent Broadway revival of The Color Purple, is also far more interesting than the material she has been given. There’s not much lightning in this Thief, but the cast brings the thunder. 

The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical plays through May 6 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre (121 Christopher St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Matinees are at 2 p.m. Thursday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111 or visit lightningthiefmusical.com

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