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When I reviewed the 2017 off-Broadway production of the musical version of the first book in Rick Riordan’s best-selling YA fantasy novel series, I gave it a rave. Calling it a “winning adaptation” that “thoroughly charms,” I predicted that the show geared for children would find much success on the regional theater circuit.
Mea culpa. The show’s producers apparently took my review, and many other favorable notices, too much to heart. Arriving on Broadway following a national tour for a limited run (timed to the upcoming holiday season, natch), The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical has lost all of its charms while gaining a dramatic uptick in ticket prices. What seemed inventive and clever in the confines of a small off-Broadway theater feels utterly wan in its current incarnation. The production represents glorified children’s theater, only with seats going for as much as $199. Any parents who shell out that kind of money for this tacky, bargain-basement production seriously need to reevaluate their financial priorities.
The show revolves around the troubled teenage title character (Chris McCarrell) discovering he’s actually a demi-god, the result of a liaison between his human mother (Jalynne Steele) and Poseidon (Ryan Knowles), the god of the sea. After learning of his lineage, Percy winds up at Camp Half-Blood, a summer camp geared to other kids just like him. There, he encounters Grover (Jorrel Javier), a happy-go-lucky satyr; the feisty Annabeth (Kristin Stokes), Athena’s daughter, who has the ability to become invisible; head counselor Luke (James Hayden Rodriguez), son of Hermes; and the camp’s director Mr. D (Javier, again), who happens to be Dionysus, the god of wine.
Those not familiar with the books — and that would be anyone over the age of 12 — will likely have trouble following the nonsensical plot involving Percy and his new friends’ efforts to find Zeus’ missing lightning bolt and thus prevent a potentially world-threatening war among the gods.
Resembling a cross between a low-rent Harry Potter and fantastical Dear Evan Hansen, with a little Be More Chill-style angst thrown in, The Lightning Thief features the sort of potty humor geared strictly for preadolescents. For every mildly amusing joke in Joe Tracz’s book (he wrote Be More Chill as well), such as Charon ferrying the Vienna Boys’ Choir across the River Styx (“They’re lucky, their voices will never change now,” she points out), there are dozens of groan-worthy ones, including a cheap shot at Josh Groban and a sight gag involving a regurgitating toilet. At one point in the performance, rolls of toilet paper are shot out into the audience via leaf blowers, which also serves as a handy visual metaphor for the show.
That’s not all audiences are forced to endure. Director Stephen Brackett’s frantic staging also periodically assaults us with deafening noises and bright lights shined directly in our eyes, the latter unfortunately not quite blinding enough to prevent us from seeing what’s going on. Lee Savage’s set design consists of little more than a painted drop cloth, a few cheap-looking Greek columns and some scaffolding, all of which economically did the trick downtown but simply looks tacky in a legitimate Broadway theater.
The pop/rock score by Broadway newcomer Rob Rokicki, performed by an onstage five-piece band, proves higher on energy and volume than musical inventiveness. Needless to say, it includes the female empowerment anthem that has become a standard fixture in new musicals, “My Grand Plan,” in which Annabeth sings, “My grand plan is that I will be remembered / My grand plan, just you wait and see / They better wise up, cause I’ll rise up / Bring on any challenge, and someday soon, someone will notice me.”
The seven-person ensemble, most of whom assume multiple roles, certainly work hard and earn their paychecks. McCarrell, who played Marius in the 2014 Broadway revival of Les Misérables, makes for a charming Harry Potter…excuse me, Percy Jackson. Javier provides dual amusement as the insecure satyr and licentious Mr. D., while Steele brings a palpable warmth to her turn as the loving mom. The show’s MVP, however, proves to be Ryan Knowles, hilarious as a variety of gods including a surfer-dude Poseidon and a wisecracking Hades who sounds suspiciously like Paul Lynde (not that the target audience will notice).
It would be damning with faint praise to say that The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical is at least less painful than the wretched 2010 film version and its misbegotten sequel (a third installment has been mercifully cancelled). The books’ author, Rick Riordan, apparently avoided seeing both films and has no intention of catching the musical adaptation, either. Anyone who’s already gone through puberty would be well advised to follow his wise example.
Venue: Longacre Theatre, New York
Cast: Jorrel Javier, Ryan Knowles, Chris McCarrell, Sarah Beth Pfeifer, James Hayden Rodriguez, Jalynn Steele, Kristin Stokes
Book: Joe Tracz, adapted from the novel The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
Music & lyrics: Rob Rokicki
Director: Stephen Brackett
Choreographer: Patrick McCollum
Set designer: Lee Savage
Costume designer: Sydney Maresca
Lighting designer: David Lander
Sound designer: Ryan Rumery
Presented by Martian Entertainment, Victoria Lang, Lisa Chanel, Jennifer Doyle & Roy Lennox, Van Dean/Meredith Lucio, O’Hara/Rae/Zurcher, Wei-Hwa Huang, Tosha Martin, Cara Talty, Fisher/Jacobs Baker/Masotti/Prince, SJGH Productions and TheaterWorksUSA
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