The Lightning Thief Gets Thrown Into the Deep End on Broadway
Following a national tour, Percy Jackson makes his Broadway debut at the Longacre Theatre.
The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical, adapted from Rick Riordan's mythological young adult novel, has gone on its own odyssey to make it to Broadway. It started its life as an hourlong show touring schools and libraries, expanded to two hours in 2017 for an off-Broadway run, hit the road again for a national tour, and has now circled back to New York for a three-month sit-down at the Longacre Theatre. It's an underdog musical about a group of underdog demigods — a compelling narrative for fans and new audiences alike to root for along each step of this so-far victorious journey. Broadway, however, might be where the triumphs end.
I'll confess up front that the Broadway production of The Lightning Thief is the first and only piece of Percy Jackson media I have consumed. I never read any of Riordan's books, never saw the (famously underwhelming) movie adaptations, and missed the musical's off-Broadway incarnation, which apparently delighted both fans and critics so much it earned a Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Musical in the future Tony-winning company of The Band's Visit and Hadestown.
Something about Rob Rokicki's angst-ridden pop score and Joe Tracz's campy-verging-on-cartoonish book struck a chord with Percy Jackson disciples and won the musical a following that propelled it to Broadway. But whatever magic spark it had downtown at the 299-seat Lucille Lortel Theatre seems to have been snuffed out by a 1,000-seat cavern and the surrounding atmosphere of Broadway expectations in which it now finds itself.
Tracz and director Stephen Brackett may be having déjà vu after charting a similar course with Be More Chill, a grassroots phenomenon that had screaming fans filling off-Broadway houses, but lasted only six short months on Broadway. What originally felt scrappy and (to use a Percy Jackson word) "impertinent" suddenly felt underwhelming and sloppy, which aptly describes The Lightning Thief in its current state.
The musical faithfully follows Riordan's storyline (a pretty blatant cribbing of Harry Potter). After battling a substitute teacher-turned-fury during a school field trip — and getting expelled for it — Percy Jackson (Chris McCarrell) discovers that his magnetic attraction to trouble stems not from his personal failings but from his divine parentage. One knockout punch from a Minotaur later and he wakes up at Camp Half-Blood, a haven for modern-day demigods struggling with parental abandonment issues. Like the spawn of Fortune 500 CEOs, the camp is filled with angry, affection-hungry kids whose godly parents are too busy running the universe to spend time with them. Percy (who we later learn is the son of Poseidon) wades through that baggage while also mourning the presumed death of his mother (played by Jalynn Steele), who fell victim to the Minotaur — though he bucks up for fun summer-camp activities remarkably quickly.
Most problems in The Lightning Thief are solved with a similar brand of head-scratching expediency. The thrust of the drama surrounds Percy's quest to retrieve Zeus's stolen lightning bolt, a theft being pinned on him as the illicit child of a rival "Big Three" god. It's up to him and his friends — a satyr named Grover (Jorrel Javier) and Athena's tactical daughter Annabeth (Kristin Stokes) — to save the planet from a war among the gods. To do that, they have to make their way from New York to the underworld, which happens to be in Los Angeles — a road trip bound to be thwarted by obstacles of the natural and supernatural varieties. And yet, the problem of an exploding bus is solved by a squirrel that happens to have train tickets on hand; the kids talk their way into the underworld with a thoroughly unconvincingly lie; and Percy's near-death experience barely lasts long enough for us to fear for his life.
The Lightning Thief loudly projects its intentions to target a younger audience. But that's no excuse for lazy storytelling — especially considering kids of the same age have proved to be fully capable of understanding and appreciating the far more nuanced J.K. Rowling-sanctioned production just a few blocks south. Of course, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (not a musical, to preempt any confusion) has an infinite bank account — a luxury The Lightning Thief does not have. Imagination, however, is free, and remains an underutilized resource in both the direction and design choices (sets by Lee Savage and costumes by Sydney Maresca).
McCarrell, the only Broadway veteran of the cast, deserves credit for carrying the show with cheeky humor, childlike charm, and a strong voice that still can't quite get Rokicki's generic tunes to stick in your head. The most memorable number is Stokes's "My Grand Plan," a song for Annabeth to vent about life as the "smart girl" who always gets passed over, which she sings to Percy, a boy who has never had to cultivate a talent in his life and yet has been handed some of the universe's greatest powers.
Listening to this song while sitting through a nearly all-male creative team's underwhelming musical that still somehow made it to one of the most prestigious stages in the world feels like a moment of reckoning. When the number ends, Stokes receives her due applause, and then crawls back into her secondary role as the ambitious and brilliant sidekick to a mediocre male hero. It's certainly not an unfamiliar trope, but this unsatisfying application is as good an argument as any to finally retire it.