Dallas — The Winspear Opera House is about to get electrified when the national tour of The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical hits the stage May 21-26. The production is a stage adaptation of the first book in Rick Riordan’s bestselling children’s fantasy series, a coming-of-age story where mythology becomes reality for one boy and his friends.
Ahead of the tour arrival, we chatted with Sarah Beth Pfeifer, who plays daughter of Ares Clarisse La Rue, to talk about the themes of the story, the power of the young adult audience, and the challenge of belting a song mid-battle scene.
TheaterJones: Tell me what you love about The Lightning Thief.
Sarah Beth Pfeifer: It’s a musical very near and dear to my heart. It’s based on the Percy Jackson and the Olympians book series. So, one of the huge bonuses of getting to do the show is that we have this awesome built-in fanbase who have loved the books for years.
Our authors did an incredible job of adapting the story to the stage and really keeping the spirit of the books and characters that people love so much. It’s an amazing opportunity to get to introduce the story to people who haven’t read the books, but also to play to fans who already have such an intense relationship to the characters.
It’s super-creative in the way that it’s staged. We don’t shy away from being super-theatrical in the sense that we’re not trying to do CGI-level. super-realistic effects. We’re not afraid to sort of wink and nod at the fact that we all know that we’re here together in the theater, doing this stuff in front of you live. There are a lot of really fun ways we find to tell the story.
It’s always interesting when there is a derivative work of something with a really active fanbase, especially when it targets a young adult audience. They in particular can become so devoted to different fandoms. Have you had any interesting experiences from that perspective while doing the show?
Sometimes we all get entrance applause! I’m not a famous actor, so they’re not applauding for Sarah Beth Pfeifer—they’re applauding for my character Clarisse, the daughter of Ares. Every day at the stage door when we’re signing Playbills, there are kids that tell me that Clarice is their favorite character, and it’s so flattering when they tell me I’m playing her just how they always pictured her.
There are a couple of smaller characters you only see for a second in the musical, which covers the first book in the series, but they figure really hugely in future books. Kids are just so excited to see them even included; they are sort of little Easter eggs that our awesome writers put in the show for them.
And because people have such relationships to the characters, we get really amazing fan art a lot of the time. I think my favorite thing that I have gotten is a crocheted doll that has my exact costume as Clarisse. We get some really awesome experiences out of putting these books up onto the stage.
Beyond the fanbase, what kind of appeal does the show have for people who are outside that target audience?
There are a couple of things. The first thing I would say is the amazing rock ’n’ roll score—I think that the whole album could pretty much be on the radio today.
Where the composer Rob Rokicki is truly gifted is that he’s able to write songs that really move the story forward and are super intrinsic to the characters that sing them. But they’re also just a bop with a genuine pop-rock sensibility. Anyone who is coming to the show is going to really enjoy the music.
And then also the themes of the show are super universal. The core theme of the show is that the things that make you different are the things that make you strong. For example, Percy discovers that things that he thought were shortcomings—having ADD and dyslexia—are actually because he’s the son of Poseidon. His ADD is actually battlefield reflexes, and his dyslexia is because his mind is hardwired to read Ancient Greek, not English.
The show ends with the characters realizing that they’re capable of going out into the world and enacting the kind of change that they want to see, that no one is too young or too weak or too different to make an impact in the world. I think that’s something that, certainly these days, everybody could use a reminder of, and hopefully we do it in a fun and engaging way.
So, Percy goes on this big journey. But what about some of the other characters, like Clarisse? Do you get to take your own start-to-finish journey?
Our writers are so brilliant, I’ll always come back to that. So even with someone like Clarisse, whose primary emotion is definitely rage, at the end of the show you see this moment of vulnerability that I won’t spoil. A lot of people have told me how much they love it when that moment happens.
Clarisse is my main character, but I actually play a lot of different characters; I haven’t really counted, but it’s something like 12 of them. I spend about as much time offstage changing my costume as I do onstage, so that’s another fun theatrical technique we use to tell the story.
There’s only seven of us, but we’re telling this epic story. Other than the actors who play Percy and Annabeth, we all play multiple characters. So that’s a really fun opportunity as an actor, to come up with a lot of different kinds of voices and characterizations to help move the story along.
That has to be a big part of the challenge of acting in this production.
Yes, definitely. But once we got to tech rehearsals, it’s amazing how something that seems like a huge impossible task sort of smooths out when you figure out every little second of each change.
Otherwise, I would say the biggest challenge is my big song as Clarisse, called “Put You in Your Place.” It involves a lot of very high singing and a lot of stage combat at the same time. So, it’s one thing that never quite gets easy.
At the end of that song, when I’ve done a full battle sequence and I’m still belting my face off, my lungs feel a little bit like they might explode. it’s a pretty unique challenge to our show—I call it battle skrelting [scream belting]—and it’s one of my special skills now!
What is your favorite moment onstage?
I will say my favorite song in the show is called “My Grand Plan.” It’s sung by Annabeth, who is sort of the smart sidekick girl of the core trio that goes on the quest that is at the center of the plot.
It’s a really feminist song about how women and girls are so often sidelined and not invited to step into the leadership role, while boys, to a certain extent, are handed things that women have to fight a little bit harder for. It’s so meaningful.
Kristin Stokes, who plays Annabeth, is such an incredible singer and performer. She just nails it every night. And hearing the cheers of all the girls in the audience who are just yelling at the end of the song, knowing we’re doing a little something to empower the next generation to step into leadership and embrace their strength...that’s one of my favorite moments for sure.
If you could tell the audience in Dallas one thing that you want them to either go into the show thinking about, or come out of the show with, what would that be?
I would say it’s the core message of the show, that you walk away feeling like you can embrace how the ways in which you are unique to the world can be used to the world’s advantage. We should all be making our mark. It can be easy to feel insecure about the things that make you different, but maybe those are your superpowers.