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A winning adaptation of a young adult fantasy novel doesn’t require a big budget. Just witness The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical, which proves far more enjoyable than the misbegotten 2010 film version or its 2013 sequel. Presented by Theaterworks NYC, which has produced more than 130 kid-oriented shows since 1961, this low-budget off-Broadway musical, featuring a book by Joe Tracz and music and lyrics by Rob Rokicki, thoroughly charms in its current limited engagement, undoubtedly with a plethora of regional productions to come.
For those unfamiliar with the best-selling book series by Rick Riordan, the story centers on a teenager, the titular Percy (Chris McCarrell), who discovers, much to his astonishment, that he’s a demi-god. His loving mother (Carrie Compere) conceived him with none other than Poseidon (Jonathan Raviv), god of the sea. Upon hearing the news, Percy reacts in typical teenage fashion: “Sweet!” he exclaims.
Percy, who suffers from dyslexia and ADHD (as did Riordan’s young son, who inspired him to write the book), is sent to a summer camp for similar “half-bloods.” There, he meets the feisty Annabeth (Kristin Stokes), daughter of Athena; Grover (George Salazar), a good-natured satyr; and Mr. D (Salazar, again), the camp’s director, whose snarky attitude might have something to do with the fact that he’s Dionysus, the god of wine.
The complicated plot — it would be helpful to read the book beforehand — involves Percy and his new friends’ efforts to prevent a war among the Greek gods and find Zeus’ missing lightning bolt. But don’t worry if you can’t keep up with the fast-paced proceedings. Providing ample compensation is the amusing dialogue, which proves just as funny for adults as children — “The gods are unfair, but we’re not total dicks,” Poseidon assures Percy when they finally meet — and the tuneful, pop-rock score featuring such songs as “Put You in Your Place” and “Another Terrible Day.”
Although it delivers some positive messages — “Normal is a myth/Everyone has issues they’re dealing with,” Percy’s mom sings — the show never stoops to the sort of preachifying so common in theater geared to kids. Both the book and score feature plenty of funny gags, such as the entrance to the underworld being the headquarters of “DOA Records” and the strains of “Come Sail Away” that we hear as the characters come upon the River Styx.
The low-tech staging — the set consists of little more than Greek columns and scaffolding, and the costumes look like they come from a thrift shop — doesn’t mean there are no theatrical thrills. Forget the helicopter in Miss Saigon; what this show does with simple rolls of toilet paper and leaf blowers proves far more fun.
McCarrell, who played Marius in the recent Broadway revival of Les Miserables, makes for an engagingly plucky Percy. The rest of the seven-person ensemble, most of them playing multiple roles, are equally terrific, with the standouts being the strong-voiced Compere and Salazar, hilarious as both the half-man/half-goat and the grumpy Dionysus.
As its characters include Ares, Medea, Chiron and Hades, The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical also provides an excellent if irreverent introduction to Greek mythology that just might persuade some kids to dig deeper.
Venue: Lucille Lortel Theatre, New York
Cast: Chris McCarrell, Sarah Beth Pfeifer, Jonathan Raviv, James Hayden Rodriguez, George Salazar, Kristin Stokes, Carrie Compere
Book: Joe Tracz
Music & lyrics: Rob Rokicki
Director: Stephen Brackett
Set designer: Lee Savage
Costume designer: Sydney Maresca
Lighting designer: David Lander
Sound designer: Ryan Rumery
Choreographer: Patrick McCollum
Presented by Theaterworks NYC, by arrangement with Rick Riordan and the Gallt & Zacker Literary Agency
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