The Highs and Lows of “The Lightning Thief”
Reading Time: 5 minutes
A uniting factor of nearly every middle school experience was reading Rick Riordan’s “The Lightning Thief,” a Greek-mythology based novel that incited a cult following of adolescents. The book follows 12-year-old Percy Jackson, who discovers that his father is the Greek god Poseidon. Since its publication, “The Lightning Thief” and its installments have attracted an avid fan base, leading to a poorly-received film adaptation, a companion series, as well as a graphic novel. In the 14 years since its release, the enthusiasm for the series has remained fervent, most recently manifesting itself in the form of “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical,” whose limited Broadway run ends in January.
For those unfamiliar with the novel, the show can be hard to follow. Both works are centered around Camp Half Blood, a summer camp and safe haven for Percy and his fellow demigods. As in the novel, Percy meets a mythical fury on a school field trip and is expelled after killing it in a dramatic battle. He breaks the news to his mother Sally (Jalynn Steele) who tries to explain her history with Poseidon, Percy’s father. The two are then attacked by a minotaur, after which Percy passes out and wakes up to find himself at the camp.
All of this would seem to warrant an expansive set and special effects, but the musical has opted for an unconventional approach to the plot’s fantastical elements. Rather than aiming for larger-than-life scenic design and puppetry, the show opts for stripped down visuals, a choice that is most notably present in the paper-mâché-esque monsters. The minotaur that Percy faces is brought to life simply by a human actor in an oversized headdress. This sounds underwhelming from an outsider’s perspective, but from a spectator’s point of view, it is almost refreshing to see a show that has not exponentially upped its production value when transferring to Broadway.
The show, in its essence, serves ultimately as a tribute to the fans—a quality that its creators and cast are well aware of. The Spectator interviewed James Hayden Rodriguez, who plays Luke and Ares onstage. Over the phone, Rodriguez explained that the show is meant to stay true to the original novel. “We stay very true to what was written in that book, so these characters are characters that all these kids are remembering from their childhood and it’s so special for them to see them onstage and fully realized,” Rodriguez said. “It was one of our biggest goals, to go back to that original story and recreate what Rick [Riordan] wrote.”
A likely contributor to the series’ fanbase was the combination of both enticing fantasy and an all-too-real coming of age story. In writing the books, Riordan himself worked to pay tribute to his own son, who often voiced the hardships of having ADHD and dyslexia. On paper, Percy and his fellow demigods have the same afflictions, but they are attributed to the fact that, as mentioned in the musical, their minds are “hard wired for ancient Greek.”
Rodriguez also explained that the simple props are used to create a more content-specific image, saying that, “the show is very much a DIY.” In addition to Luke and Ares, Rodriguez plays the minotaur itself and attests that the costume does raise the stakes onstage. “I can see the front row of the audience when I come out onstage,” he added. “And it’s always so cool to see people either terrified or just really in awe of the puppet.”
This is not to go without saying that the less expansive appearance can occasionally have its shortcomings. In a climactic scene where Percy realizes that his demigod status has given him the ability to manipulate water, the mystical swirling powers described in the novel are represented by toilet paper attached to the top of a leaf blower. While this simple visual may be meant to add to the DIY-summer-camp mood, it is understandable to see that some audiences are left in search of the technical extravagance that is usually expected from Broadway productions.
Despite its minimalistic visuals, the show works. It is gripping and high-energy, which is also a clear testament to the cast, who together, deliver a performance that begs no questioning of a sparse set. The seven-person cast is, for the most part, endearingly dynamic, a quality that likely would not have survived if the group were to expand. Many actors play multiple roles, as is the case for Rodriguez, who added, “There’s only seven of us, and there’s something like 45 characters in the show that we portray.” Part of the musical’s charm is undoubtedly its simplicity, and it’s refreshing to see that each character’s narrative is highlighted, rather than being muddled by a full ensemble, with each character being played by a different actor. Rodriguez himself has a lively presence onstage, and as Luke, believably switches from a welcoming camp attendee to Percy’s jealous antagonist.
Chris McCarrell plays the titular role of Percy Jackson, delivering a performance that is nuanced beyond what one would expect from a typical troubled teen protagonist. McCarrell’s portrayal of Percy is fidgety, boyish, and hilariously awkward, all of which place the character and audience on a common ground. Despite the plot’s fantastical premise, many of the obstacles Percy is faced with are entirely human issues; Percy’s father does happen to be Poseidon, but for the majority of his life, Percy knew of him only as an average absent parent. Percy and his mother are close, but both are acutely aware of the disconnect between them and Percy’s stepfather, Gabe (also Rodriguez). McCarrell’s theater background includes the role of Marius in the 2014 revival of “Les Misérables,” and his voice has a range clearly suited for both more traditional, and contemporary scores.
On the other hand, Kristin Stokes, who plays Annabeth Chase, Percy’s smart sidekick, portrays her character in a way that feels one-sided. Annabeth was a favorite of most female readers, known for her intelligence and combat skills, while still being approachable and humble. Instead of pioneering the way for nerdy girls everywhere, Stokes’ Annabeth seems like a condescending know-it-all. Her acting is one note—every line she says seems to be poorly shaped as sarcastic, leaving no room for emotional development. Stokes, however, does shine during “My Grand Plan,” a song in Act Two in which Annabeth reflects on what she wants to accomplish with the use of her intelligence and determination. This moment in the show is a glimpse of the skills Stokes possesses, one of which is the ability to exude both drive and vulnerability. In the rest of her performance, this is somewhat left to be desired. Stokes’ singing voice is powerful, but her delivery is in need of more dimension; the lack of which is particularly noticeable alongside McCarrell’s incredibly dynamic Percy.
Every song in the show is hard-hitting and serves to iron out the jam-packed plot, which is admittedly a rollercoaster for the average theatergoer. Vaguely reminiscent of the ill-fated “Be More Chill,” the score is riddled with various degrees of a sentiment that can best be described as “teen angst.” The cast, though small, is vocally stellar, a quality that is particularly highlighted in “The Campfire Song,” and the closing “Bring on the Monsters.”
Is “The Lightning Thief” perfect? No, but it does not need to be. The musical’s target audience, mostly families and avid fans of the book, is niche, and the show does in fact cater to their every need. The small cast functions like a well-oiled machine, singing songs that express precisely the show’s intentions. Where it lacks in Broadway glam, it makes up for in spirit, energy, and Greek mythology references. In the words of Rodriguez, “It’s so special for [the fans] to see [the characters] onstage and fully realized. They’re out there, and they’re screaming.” For this audience, the magic of the show is not with the set or the effects or even the cast, but in seeing this story brought to life.