THE LIGHTNING THIEF: THE PERCY JACKSON MUSICAL Blazes through the Kennedy Center
On Friday night, plenty of very excited young kids, teenagers, and parents traipsed into the Eisenhower Theater at Kennedy Center to witness Percy Jackson, star of Rick Riordan's popular book series, live on stage. Many of the audience members clearly knew the source material better than I did going in - if the entrance applause and excitement of the people around me was any indicator. However, I think it's safe to say we were all equally charmed by the end - even me, an admittedly jaded musical theater junkie.
The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical, Joe Tracz (Book) and Rob Rokicki's (Music and Lyrics) charming musical about embracing your differences and the need to face challenges head on, first premiered off-Broadway in 2017 and now it's making its way across the United States on tour. While there are no more opportunities to see the show at Kennedy Center (it only played a weekend), I would urge you to take a chance on this one if it comes to your city in the future, whether you are familiar with the book on which the musical is based or not.
When we first meet Percy Jackson (Chris McCarrell, reprising his role), he's on a school field trip to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. An unbelievable incident involving a sword and a substitute teenager-turned-demon that only he sees, indirectly results in him getting expelled from yet another school. He was already on probation. His mother Sally (Jalynn Steele) is acutely aware that Percy has trouble fitting in, especially at school - made more difficult by ADHD and dyslexia - so her response to the news is one born out of love and understanding. She tries to hold things together as best she can since Percy's father is not in the picture and her smelly boyfriend Gabe is not much of a help - not to mention Percy doesn't particularly like him.
Percy has many questions about his dad and why he has so much trouble doing things right. Sally takes Percy to the beach where she met his mysterious dad and urges him to embrace his quirkiness. They meet Percy's friend Grover (Jorrel Javier) while there, but let's just say they all just don't spend a quiet hour or two sitting in the sand and then leave. An encounter with a Minotaur leaves Sally dead. Percy kills the Minotaur in a fit of rage, loses consciousness, and ends up (with Grover) where his mother wanted him to be - camp.
The camp, appropriately named Camp Half-Blood, is no ordinary camp. The campers all have unique personalities, gifts, and challenges, but they have one thing in common. Each one is a demi-god. Yes, one of their parents is a Greek god, but not everyone knows which god their (absent) mother or father is though everyone wants their approval. While Percy is, up to the point of meeting the fellow campers, blissfully unaware of his lineage, the camp experience allows him to learn more about who he is, what he can do, and where he comes from. He learns he's the son of Poseidon (the sea god), one of the most powerful. An opportunity presents itself to go on a quest to prevent a war between the gods. Accompanied by fellow campers Annabeth (Kristin Stokes) - Athena's daughter - and Grover, they set off for a battle that takes them to the underworld. They learn what they think they know isn't always true and that each have more power within them than they think they have. They can face challenges head on and come out alright even if it at first seems impossible.
Filled with catchy contemporary musical theater songs that have somewhat of a rock edge, the musical has widespread appeal. There's an important message that will satisfy any parent, enough Greek mythology education that will delight a teacher, a lot of action and spectacle that will satisfy younger and older theatergoers alike, and a strong story/score that will satisfy any older musical theater nerd.
While I wish I could have been able to understand the lyrics a little better (the seemingly never-ending sound issues in the Eisenhower when it's home to a rock musical raised their ugly heads again), what I could hear suggested that while the varied (though slightly derivative at times) music is strong, the lyrics also fit the story and move it forward. Well directed by Stephen Brackett, the uniformly talented cast give their all to each and every song, accompanied by a rocking four-piece orchestra under the direction of Wiley Deweese. Standout moments include Kristin Stokes' solo turn on "My Grand Plan," Steele and McCarrell's mother-son duet "Strong," McCarrell's solo turn on "Good Kid," and the Act II closer "Bring on the Monsters."
Even in the non-musical moments, the cast impresses. Chris McCarrell has an endearing, natural presence and - as played by him - you really want Percy to succeed. Kristin Stokes, arguably one of the strongest singers in the bunch, exudes ambition as Annabeth. While not the strongest singer in the cast, Jorrel Javier is a master at comedy. Likewise, Ryan Knowles' verbal and physical comedy chops are on full display as Chiron.
The technical elements serve the piece and do not overshadow the story. From Lee Savage's utilitarian yet creative scenic design and Sydney Maresca's costumes which bridge the divide between Greek mythological character and modern teen, to David Lander's effective lighting design and AchesonWalsh Studios intricate puppetry design, the technical elements make the action/adventure scenes that much more interesting. The production offers an example of all of the technical elements working together cohesively to create sensory experiences that further the audience's enjoyment and the telling of the story.
Running Time: Two hours and fifteen minutes, including one intermission.
THE LIGHTNING THIEF: THE PERCY JACKSON MUSICAL, played the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC from February 15 to February 17, 2019. For tickets and information on upcoming Kennedy Center theater performances, click here. For tickets and information on the current national tour, click here.