As someone who covers a fair amount of children's theater, I often scan the audience, the kids especially, to gage reactions to the show. At The Lightning Thief, a musical produced by TheaterworksUSA and directed by Stephen Brackett at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, the reactions of adults were what got my attention. Roars of grown-up laughter (mine included) competed with the children's high-pitched squeals of delight as everyone enjoyed the loud, funny, fast-paced, wonderfully imaginative musical based on the first novel in Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series. This show is a true family-pleaser — and it's free!
Percy Jackson (Eric Meyers), who's something of an outcast at school, has never known his father. Now his mom is married to Gabe, a mega-loser who eats too much bean dip and smells terrible. Percy soon discovers, however, that his ADHD and dyslexia are really clues to his true identity: He is a "half-blood" (an offspring of a Greek god and a mortal). At Camp Half-Blood, he meets some other demigods his own age: Grover (Jordan Stanley), who's half satyr, and Annabeth (Kristin Stokes), a daughter of Athena. There he finds that he is the son of Poseidon. Together they set out on a mythic, monster-fighting mission to discover who has stolen Zeus' thunderbolt and return it to its rightful owner in order to avoid an all-out war among the gods.
Joe Tracz has culled the main plot points from Riordan's book and compressed them into a taut 60 minutes that manages to make room for no fewer than 14 musical numbers by Rob Rokicki, whose well-crafted lyrics not only propel the action but deliver solid messages. Zakiya Young, as Percy's mother, sings "Strong," a ballad about recognizing your potential, with gorgeous inflection. As Charon, the ferryman on the River Styx, Parker Drown joins Meyers, Stanley, and Annabeth in the riotous and crowd-pleasing "In the Same Boat." The hysterical Graham Stevens gets laughs throughout as the horse-legged Chiron and as Percy's suave, Hawaiian-shirt-wearing father, Poseidon. Tracz's comic lines, delivered with immaculate timing, find a perfect home with these actors.
Brackett does a marvelous job of keeping the action moving at lightning speed while also knowing when to give the all-ages audience a chance to catch their breaths. Sam Pinkleton's energetic choreography partners dynamically with Rokicki's vibrant music, and Turner Smith's fight direction gets everyone's hearts racing. The set, designed by Lee Savage, creates the world of Greek myth simply, with three large white columns suggesting a temple. These are accentuated by David Lander's lighting design, which allows the scene to shift to different worlds, from Percy's home by the sea to Hades' netherworld, in a flash. Small lighting tricks also create everything from the illusion of Percy and his friends riding on a motorcycle to flames leaping upward in the underworld.
For kids who aren't familiar with the book, it might be worth it to give them a little refresher on the main Greek gods (Zeus, Athena, Ares, and a few of the other big ones) to help them understand some of the more nuanced moments of the story. Mythology aside, The Lightning Thief offers one of the most important lessons of all: how to use your imagination. It entertains without relying on big-budget special effects, focusing instead on solid writing, exceptional performances, and an innovative design team, including Sydney Maresca with her creative costumes and Carl Casella with his brilliant sound work. In short, if you're looking to introduce your youngsters ages 8 and up to a great piece of musical theater, The Lightning Thief should top your list. You'll get a kick out of it, too.