Dallas — Before there were superheroes, and superhero franchises, demigods roamed the earth. They were the offspring of the union of Greek gods and mortals. In writer Rick Riordan’s updated mythology, demigods are still around, and the gods have become the ultimate absentee parents. One way that these semi-divine kids can get the gods’ attention is by going on a quest, which is the basis of The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical, based on the first installment of Riordan’s Percy Jackson & the Olympians series of children’s fantasy books.
Protagonist Percy Jackson struggles at school because of ADHD, dyslexia, and a strained relationship with his stepfather. It’s not until he discovers the identity of his biological father that his struggles start to make sense. Even his stepdad’s smell serves a purpose. But the world of the gods mirrors the real world, and Percy is once again accused of doing something he isn’t guilty of: stealing Zeus’ lightning bolt, the most powerful weapon in the universe. Like his namesake the mythological Perseus, Percy, too, must go on a quest, which will take him across the United States and down into the underworld domain of Hades in an attempt to prevent the looming war of the gods.
The Lightning Thief musical was first developed in 2014. Though predominately a children’s story, Joe Tracz, who wrote the book, throws in enough camp to entertain parents, or grandparents, as well. There’s a modern-day turbaned Medusa, for example, sauntering around her sculpture garden like Little Edie around Grey Gardens. Even the Paul Lynde-inflected Hades as the lisping god of the underworld helps to keep the mood light. The songs by Rob Rokicki are the engine that drives this upbeat, kid-friendly musical. Choreography is by Patrick McCollum, and Stephen Brackett directs.
Chris McCarrell stars as Percy Jackson after originating the role off-Broadway in 2017. He masterfully depicts Percy’s range, from the teenager filled with self-doubt to the defiantly impertinent son of Poseidon. Jorrel Javier excels and excites as both Grover, Percy’s best friend and secret satyr protector, as well as the high-strung Mr. D., the Greek god Dionysius irked by the bureaucratic demands of running Camp Half-Blood, where demigod children receive their training and prepare for their quests. Kristen Stokes captures the conflicted spirit of Annabeth, daughter of Athena and quest companion.
Most of the talented seven-member cast perform multiple roles. Ryan Knowles uses his impressive voice to bring to life the centaur Chiron, Medusa, and Hades, among others.
Sarah Beth Pfeifer tackles the role of substitute teacher, and Fury-in-disguise, Mrs. Dodds as well as of demigod Clarisse. James Hayden Rodriguez is magnetic as bad boy demigod Luke and god of war Ares. And Jalynn Steele stands out as Charon, the elevator operator to Hades.
Lee Savage uses simple scaffolding as the basis of his scenic design. By adding casters, the frames become a bus or a train. The scaffolding gives the stage an industrial, neo-Constructivist vibe that requires the audience’s imagination to fill in the blank spaces. The abundance of visible ratchet tie-down straps adds to the meta-theatricality of the script with its self-referential jokes about props used by touring musical productions. David Lander’s lighting design, which employs a bank of Matrix-y LED signs upstage as well as portable handheld beams, mesmerizes the audience. The lightning effect that opens the show jolts the audience into the Percy Jackson universe.
Costumes by Sydney Maresca remain fairly simple. Despite the fact that they are descended from the gods, most of the characters, after all, are typical teenagers. There are, however, some well-crafted costumes for the immortals. When Mrs. Dodds, for examples, transforms into her Fury self and begins flying, we get to see some creative costuming and puppetry effects. Achesonwalsh Studios is responsible for the puppetry design, and hair and makeup design are by Dave Bova.
The orchestra is made up of accomplished musicians Wiley DeWeese (conductor/keyboard), Jeff Fernandes (percussion), Kevin Wunderlich (guitar), and Yuka Tadano (bass). Sound design is by Obie Award-winning composer Ryan Rumery.
Plot-wise, Act I is tighter. Act II unfortunately devolves into unnecessary backstory and unrelated plot points that tends to derail the momentum. But the musical adaptation offers a better introduction to Greek mythology than the 2010 film version. Also, this accommodating musical has lots of charm beneath its somewhat heavy-handed message about misunderstood kids finding their way in the world. If you’re not careful, The Lightning Thief just might steal your heart.