theater review

Theater Review: Teen Perseus Alights on West 48th in The Lightning Thief

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

It’s becoming hard to leave a big musical without having something rain down on you, whether confetti (Moulin Rouge!, Beetlejuice), streamers (Little Shop of Horrors), or fake snow (Frozen). To that messy trend, The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical is here to add rolls and rolls of toilet paper, shot over the audience’s head with leaf blowers when its young hero summons streams of water to fight one of his mythical enemies. The young fans at my performance cheered like the ball was being dropped on New Year’s Eve. I was delighted by the low-tech ingenuity, even if I did also feel like a suburban home those middle-schoolers had decided to vandalize, just in time for Halloween.

Your degree of enjoyment of The Lightning Thief will probably depend on your feelings about the toilet paper, which is a pretty neat stand-in for the rest of this scrappy, loudly eager-to-please show. The story’s based on the first of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson & the Olympians young-adult novels that transplant Greek mythology into the present. Teen hero Percy — as in Perseus — Jackson never fit in at school, but surprise, surprise, it turns out his missing dad is actually a Greek god (his identity isn’t exactly a spoiler, but let’s just say his mom really loved the sea). After being attacked by a few monsters, he goes off to a magic training camp, where he meets a bunch of other superpowered demigod kids. As ever, these gods are really promiscuous. “Yeah, the gods are real,” as everyone sings in an opening number seemingly written to be screamed in your bedroom after you’ve been grounded, “and they have kids / and those kids have issues! / Issues!”

In case these plot points sound familiar, it’s worth pointing out that this production bears little resemblance to the bland Percy Jackson movie adaptations and hews close to the cheeky tone of Riordan’s actual books, which mash together the divine and ridiculous. In the show, Dionysus (a.k.a. “Mr. D”) chugs Diet Coke, Medusa is dressed like she’s just finished filming Grey Gardens, and the underworld happens to be located in Los Angeles (“actually, I’m not surprised,” Percy deadpans). In keeping with that spirit, The Lightning Thief renders its monsters with low-tech puppetry, and the show’s MacGuffin, a stolen bolt of Zeus’s lightning, resembles the electric lantern you’d inevitably forget to bring on a camping trip. Everything falls on the “homespun” side of low-budget, a welcome respite from some of the more literal-minded stagings of common to more expensive Broadway spectacles. Though, as The Lightning Thief stretches over two acts, the scrappiness becomes a little cloying — after watching one character grunt and hack with a sword through one chaotic fight scene, I felt ready to skip through the rest.

The vibe in general feels indebted to The Lightning Thief’s start as a TheaterworksUSA production in 2014, before it moved to a bigger Off Broadway house in 2017 and then launched on a national tour. There’s also a kinship to Be More Chill, both in their off-kilter misfit-boy material and in their shared writer, Joe Tracz, and director, Stephen Brackett. Lightning Thief’s 16-week Broadway run reunites most of its touring cast, and it brings back Chris McCarrell, who originally played Percy Off Broadway. He’s got the knack of making Percy angsty, sarcastic, lonely, and pompous all at once, like a lizard, or just your average misfit teen. One of his best, so-dumb-it’s-hilarious line readings, after being told he’s looking at the pit of Tartarus: “Like,” McCarrell asks, basking in a pause, “the fish sauce?”

Apart from those jokes, the bones of The Lightning Thief are pretty standard post-Potter YA: There’s a lot of watching one lonely boy learn that he’s special, and meeting his supportive friend group, and finally seeing him actually get to be special. The score, by Rob Rokicki, is full of big ballads (and some of the ensemble members start to grate by hitting those notes too hard), there are lots of moments when the lights converge on Percy and he performs an emotional collapse while delivering lines like “I try and try to be a good kid!” as the show slides into a sort of Dear Joseph Campbell bathos. As charming as he is, I found myself wishing for a story less about Percy, the kind of character we’ve seen so much of in the past, and more with his friends, especially Kristin Stokes’s Annabeth, an Elizabeth Warren–esque demigod daughter of Athena who always has a plan. She serves the function of this story’s Hermione, more competent and yet somehow less important than the male lead.

But it’s probably too much to ask that The Lightning Thief provide some revisionist take on its source material, considering its straightforward aims. This is a show built for its fans, not to the point of excluding everyone else, but definitely at the risk of alienating them a bit. As a newcomer, you may feel like you’re an interloper at someone else’s birthday party, unsure of why they keep serving blue food, which is apparently a Percy Jackson in-reference. You may flinch at the dorkiness, but if you’re in the mood to join in and let the t.p. fly, there’s fun to be had.

The Lightning Thief is at the Longacre Theatre.

Theater: Teen Perseus on 48th Street in The Lightning Thief