“The gods are real. And they have kids. And those kids have issues,” a Greek choir of tweens bemoans in the opening of “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” (2017), which played at the Hanover Theatre in Worcester, Mass. last weekend.
That display of raw sixth-grade angst was all it took to hook the audience completely on this delightful, if inconsistent, musical. It’s not to say that “The Lightning Thief” is some deep, poetic, psychological look at a beloved young adult novel — how could it be? — but rather, when faced with a flat-out fabulous cast and a very catchy pop/rock score, how can anyone resist?
Based on the first book in the mega-popular “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” series by Rick Riordan, the touring version of the 2017 off-Broadway production, itself an expanded version of a 2014 Theatreworks USA production, is fairly faithful to its source material. The musical still follows Percy Jackson (Chris McCarrell), recently expelled from his fifth school in six years, as he discovers he is a half-blood, a child of both a god and a mortal. After his mother dies protecting him from a minotaur, Percy makes his way to Camp Half-Blood, where he receives a hero’s quest to prevent a war between the Gods and save his mother from the Underworld. While it perhaps would be enough for fans of the series — this writer included — if the show’s creators, Joe Tracz, the playbook author, and Rob Rokicki, the score creator, chose to replicate the novel exactly, they smartly avoid that trap. Instead, we are treated to a wildly empathetic, stand-alone musical that embraces the pain of loss at all ages and understands the resulting drive to prove oneself. Even more astutely, Tracz and Rokicki expand outward from Percy’s point of view and apply empathy to every character. This is especially true for Grover (Jorrel Javier) and Annabeth (Kirsten Stokes), Percy’s friends who accompany him on his quest and both receive affecting second-act solos. Perhaps even more importantly, as the show is aimed at young audiences, the script and score are also downright hilarious. “Lost,” the second-act opener where Percy and his compatriots panic at the thought of dying in in New Jersey, of all places, comes to mind as an example of the show’s delicious wit.
To stage this quirky mix of humor and heart, however, director Stephen Brackett and set designer Lee Savage resort to the idea of a rock concert, seemingly held in an abandoned Grecian warehouse, complete with scaffolding and lightning graffiti. While this choice does reflect the youthful energy and rock nature of the musical, it does force the action down center and allow the actors to occasionally emote instead of staying present and truthful. Brackett and Savage attempt to compensate for this with very imaginative staging and some anchoring set pieces respectively, but both cannot avoid an intermittent sense of wandering, especially as the show drags while remaining at Camp Half-Blood for the majority of the first act. The rock concert frame also swallows the sound (designed by Ryan Rumery), as important lyrics get lost in the pop ether, and allows the choreography (done by Patrick McCollum) to be a little too wild, especially during a campfire number. In my book, however, these are minor points, as the show still looks great. Savage goes all-in on the rock concert format and washes the stage, and often the audience, with sharp colors, while costume designer Sydney Maresca clearly had fun styling each character (think: Hades as a fashion icon). The puppets from AchesonWalsh Studios also are very impressive, particularly the terrifying Minotaur and a hilarious cameo from a dead youth choir in the Underworld.
Speaking of impressive, the entire cast is, which is what really sends the musical into the stratosphere. All the actors devour their respective roles, but kudos go to Ryan Knowles, who might rival BenDeLaCreme for best Paul Lynde impression, and Jalynn Steele, an exquisite disco diva, for their ability to juggle both tender and outlandish characters. One can also not forget the spectacular Chris McCarrell, who turns a potentially whiny protagonist into the most entertaining tween ever seen onstage, and the wonderful Kristin Stokes, who smartly becomes the steady center amidst the show’s chaos and later subverts that image with the best number in the show in my book, “My Grand Plan.”
Even the terrific performances, exquisite visuals and tasty writing cannot save the show from a lack of a wholly satisfying ending. Even with a great finale, “Bring On the Monsters,” there are still some unresolved questions about Kronos and Luke, the show’s main villains, which is a direct result of focusing on only one book in an epic series of five. In the finale, however, Percy promises that he’ll “be back next summer. You’ll see me again.” One can only hope we will, especially if he returns with another deeply enjoyable musical in tow.