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BWW Review: THE LIGHTNING THIEF Hits Its Stride in New Production at Nashville Children's Theatre

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Joe Tracz-Rob Rokicko Musical Finds Its Footing As Theater for Young Audiences

BWW Review: THE LIGHTNING THIEF Hits Its Stride in New Production at Nashville Children's Theatre
Henry Beddoe, Sierra Fermin and Chris Sandoval in The Lightning Thief.

Throughout its long, venerated history, Nashville Children's Theatre has broken barriers and set the standard for excellence in theater for younger audiences and its latest production - The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical - proves no less challenging than anything that has come before it. While The Lightning Thief cannot compare with some of the more stellar and far more memorable shows that have preceded it, audiences can rest assured that the musical's attributes help to continue NCT's role among the vanguard of TYA exemplars.

That may be, upon first consideration, something of a surprise, particularly for a work that brings a history of inconsistency with it to NCT. In its initial run off-Broadway, the musical - with book by Joe Tracz and music and lyrics by Rob Rokicki, based on the novel by Rick Riordan - garnered primarily good reviews, while its subsequent transfer to Broadway resulted in less-than-glowing notices from critics.

Thus, it arrives in Nashville with something to prove: Does The Lightning Thief have legs? The answer, provided by the enthusiastic response from opening night audiences at its Music City debut, is a resounding yes, especially if one considers it in relation to, and in contrast with, the works that have come before it.

The Lightning Thief has found its public as theater for young audiences.

BWW Review: THE LIGHTNING THIEF Hits Its Stride in New Production at Nashville Children's Theatre
Henry Beddoe as Percy Jackson.

Considered against a backdrop of the times in which we find ourselves now living - in the midst of a hopefully-waning worldwide pandemic, a confounding and fractious time of partisanship and political battles, with a sense of xenophobia and race-baited fear infusing most public discourse - The Lightning Thief is one more in a long line of theatrical offerings from NCT that challenge audiences to think about and examine long-held beliefs and personal biases.

At first, it might be a surprise to question one's beliefs about life in general and the world in particular when sitting in a darkened theater, watching a fast-moving action-adventure set to music, especially one based on Greek mythology that comes from the Percy Jackson & The Olympians series of books. But that's exactly what happens when one takes the time to peer beneath the surface of the musical onstage of the Ann Stahlman Hill Theater through October 31.

The musical's consideration of the lives of "half-bloods" - the progeny of gods and mortals - and how their very existence is affected by who they are and where they come from may have the unexpected, but probably not unintended, impact of forcing audiences to consider their own prejudices when faced with individuals unlike themselves or those of their ilk. Granted, it's very easy to overlook those more difficult to ponder issues and to allow oneself to only view The Lightning Thief on a far baser level - it's rather mindless fun, truth be told.

BWW Review: THE LIGHTNING THIEF Hits Its Stride in New Production at Nashville Children's Theatre
The cast of The Lightning Thief.

Yet, thanks to Tracz's often trenchant and ultimately accessible book for the musical, audience members are invited to delve more deeply into the story being told. Consequently, director Ernie Nolan and his creative team have crafted a production brought to life by a youthful cast of musical theater students from Nashville's Belmont University (this is the first co-production of Nashville Children's Theatre and Belmont University Musical Theatre) that is sure to entertain, even while it makes you think once you get in your car and head home after the show is over.

The character of Percy Jackson, he of the show's title and the book series' name, is the son of Poseidon (one of the Twelve Olympians of ancient Greek religion and mythology, aka the god of the sea, storms, earthquakes and horses - played by Christian Sandelin, one of BUMT's more accomplished young actors) and an earthbound, mortal mother (Aliya Johnson shines in the role).

BWW Review: THE LIGHTNING THIEF Hits Its Stride in New Production at Nashville Children's Theatre
Henry Beddoe and the cast of The Lightning Thief.

Percy, played here with ample charm, assuredness and enthusiasm by Henry Beddoe, has had a spotty academic career up until the time we meet him in The Lightning Thief, due to his dyslexia and ADHD. Percy's not a bad kid, despite being tossed out of at least six schools during his rather brief time on earth and it's explained in pretty short order that his dyslexia derives from the fact that his brain is wired to interpret everything through the Greek language (words and letters in English seem to fly off the pages he is forced to read) and his inability to focus on the tasks at hand is because he is better suited to military strategy. Being a demi-god is hard, y'all.

Luckily, Percy ends up at Camp Half-Blood where he meets Annabeth Chase (played by the quick-witted and confident Sierra Fermin), the most intelligent girl he's ever encountered - understandable, since her mom is Athena - and he discovers that his best friend Grover Underwood (the versatile and adroit Chris Sandoval) is a satyr, whose job has been to help protect Percy from the monsters that seek to destroy him because of his growing power and strength.

BWW Review: THE LIGHTNING THIEF Hits Its Stride in New Production at Nashville Children's Theatre
Henry Beddoe and Christian Sandelin

Surrounded by his people, Percy's own sense of confidence and self-esteem begin to grow and soon he, Annabeth and Grover set off on a life-altering quest to discover who stole Zeus' lightning bolt and planted it in Percy's backpack.

Clearly, it helps to have read the book that inspired the musical or to have at least a rudimentary understanding of Greek mythological hierarchy, but the musical's fast-paced plot and Rokicko's lyrics help even neophytes follow along with ease - but don't blink or you're likely to miss something vital to the story and you'll be scratching your head before you catch up.

Musical director David Weinstein conducts the five-member orchestra (his proficiency on keyboards is evident throughout, as well) through Rokicki's rock-infused, if rather pedestrian and uninspired, score, to provide strong accompaniment for the show's musical moments.

BWW Review: THE LIGHTNING THIEF Hits Its Stride in New Production at Nashville Children's Theatre

Scott Leathers' lighting design helps to keep the audience's collective eye on the prize of each moment as it happens onstage and his simple, but utilitarian set provides a suitable backdrop for the onstage action. Bill Rios' fine projection design helps to provide the proper visual elements for the piece, even if they are sometimes difficult to appreciate behind the gridwork of the physical set. Kaitlin Barnett's sound design is well-executed, save for a couple of opening night issues, and Eric D. Pasto-Crosby's fight choreography infuses the plot's progression with the requisite action. William H. Ditty's costumes help to delineate the various characters with appropriately teenaged fashion choices, while his more fantastical costume pieces help to separate the gods and the furies from the mere mortals on the stage.

BWW Review: THE LIGHTNING THIEF Hits Its Stride in New Production at Nashville Children's Theatre The Lightning Thief. Book by Joe Tracz. Music and lyrics by Rob Rokicki. Based on the novel by Rick Riordan. Directed by Ernie Nolan. Musical direction by David Weinstein. Stage managed by Jack Tanzi. Presented at Nashville Children's Theatre, Nashville. Through October 31. For performance schedule and tickets and to read about NCT's Covid-19 protocols, go to www.nashvillect.org. Running time: 2 hours, with one 15-minute intermission.

Photos by Michael Scott Evans


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