It’s a funny coincidence of fate that The Lightning Thief musical is currently playing on Broadway (at the Longacre Theatre for a limited 16-week engagement) across the street from where Hadestown is ongoing. Two quite different takes on Greek mythology! But while Hadestown was a recent Tony favorite, The Lightning Thief is a fun show that doesn’t reach those same Olympian heights.
Based on the best-selling series of young adult books by Rick Riordan, The Lightning Thief is the story of a modern world where the Greek gods are still very much alive. Zeus rules Mount Olympus from New York City, Poseidon still controls the movement of all water, and Hades’ underworld lurks beneath Hollywood. The gods’ biggest impact on the world, though, is the many children they’ve produced with human partners. These demigods don’t have it easy in the modern world; their natural inclinations towards heroism and Ancient Greek give them symptoms of ADHD and dyslexia. Oh, and also they’re constantly being chased by monsters.
The young hero at the center of the story is Percy Jackson (Chris McCarrell), who has grown up with a single mother (Jalynn Steele) and, despite his best efforts, continually finds himself kicked out of one school after another. That happens at the beginning of the show too, but that time Percy has a pretty good excuse: During a school field trip to the museum, one of the chaperones transforms into a monstrous Fury and attacks him. Percy is able to defeat her with the help of a pen that becomes a sword, but gets expelled for the wreckage. He finds temporary refuge at Camp Half-Blood, a.k.a “What if Hogwarts was a summer camp,” but soon has to embark on a quest to find Zeus’ missing lightning bolt before it starts an all-out god war.
Sounds like a lot to take in, right? Riordan’s world is very textured, which is how his books have attracted such a passionate and durable fanbase over the years — itself a big reason why The Lightning Thief’s national tour was successful enough to make it to Broadway. But sometimes it’s hard to explain every nuance of these high concepts in digestible song form, especially when the lyrics are drowned out by the music or cacophony of choreographed battle.
But even if you don’t follow every little detail, there’s still much to enjoy about the stage production. The Fury’s transformation, in which stagehands arrive under cover of fog to attach various wing components, is a fun way of breaking down a blockbuster CGI-level effect for a stage budget. Other classic monsters of Greek myth, such as Medusa and the Minotaur, are depicted in similarly inventive fashion.
The Lightning Thief has of course been adapted before, as a little-loved 2010 movie. But one advantage this stage production has over the film is its level of humor. Riordan’s books have always had a strong undercurrent of jokes, but McCarrell turns Percy into a full-on sass machine. His gangly physicality and constant quips make Percy quite believable as a misfit teen trying to find his place in a big and scary world. The song lyrics (by Rob Rokicki) are full of jokes, and go a long way to distinguishing the musical from the movie. But meta humor is always a double-edged sword; when one character says that Zeus’ lightning bolt is much more fearsome than “some crummy zig-zag from a Broadway musical,” it crosses a line between lampshading the show’s underdog quality and actively undermining it.
Aside from McCarrell and Kristin Stokes (who plays Annabeth Chase, Percy’s brainy rival/friend/love interest), the many dozens of characters are filled by only five other actors, with mixed results. Jorrel Javier’s performance as Percy’s satyr companion Grover Underwood is both hilarious and heartfelt (particularly during “Tree on a Hill,” Grover’s lament about his failure to save a different demigod friend), but his take on Camp Half-Blood overseer Dionysus is mostly obnoxious.
The Lightning Thief is a good fit for fans who have been following the franchise for years, and newcomers might also be pleased by the scrappy aesthetic. But certain elements are stretched a little thin, and YA themes like “don’t be afraid to be yourself” might pale in comparison to Broadway’s more serious fare. B-