The Lightning Thief Review: On Broadway Battling Beasts and Bloat

I think if I were eight years old I might have loved “The Lightning Thief” on Broadway, but that’s mostly because I would then have been too young to have seen it at the Lucille Lortel Theatre five years ago. Downtown, this musical about Percy Jackson, a modern American adolescent who also happens to be a demigod from Greek mythology, was just an hour long, charming in a do-it-yourself low-budget way….and with free admission!

At Broadway’s Longacre Theater, “The Lightning Thief” is two hours long, not as charming…and very much not free.

Bringing the musical to Broadway hasn’t made “The Lightning Thief”  a better show — it’s ballooned beyond its fighting weight — but I can understand why the creative team might have felt compelled to do so.   Percy Jackson began life as the hero of a series of bedtime stories that Rick Riordan created for his son, then became the protagonist on the pages of Riordan’s bestselling novels. The novels  were adapted into a couple of blockbuster movies starring Logan Lerman. Once the story was further adapted into a Theatreworks children’s stage musical by playwright Joe Tracz, composer Rob Rokicki and director Stephen Brackett, it must have seemed inevitable to continue the trajectory.

There is still some charm and wit, especially for those who have read the books, in the story of Percy (Chris McCarrell), a boy who doesn’t fit in, discovering that he is the son of Poseidon, the god of the sea, and one of the three most powerful deities.

He finds this out after his mortal mother Sally (Jalynn Steele) has sent him to Camp Half-Blood where he meets other children from mixed families (half mortal, half divine.) Together they sing “The Campfire Song,” the cleverest of the 18 in the show, expressing their resentment of their absent god parent:

Oh things couldn’t be worse
When your parents run the universe

We’re introduced early and often to this sometimes amusing crossbreeding of myth and adolescent angst – increasingly familiar on Broadway, as well as on young adult bookshelves – which would be funnier if there were less of it. Similarly, the inspirational message for the kiddies is hammered home in song after song. In “Strong,” for example, Percy laments:

if you’re weird, you’re weak

His mother Sally replies melodically:
That’s where you’re wrong
The things that make you different are the very things that make you strong

The plot too is familiar – a hero’s quest, which kicks in soon after Percy learns that Zeus (his uncle) thinks Percy has stolen his thunderbolt. Percy travels by bus from New Jersey to L.A., where Hades is located. He is accompanied by his best friend Grover (Jorrel Javier), who’s a satyr, half-man, half-goat, and by Annabeth, the super-competent but of course neglected daughter of Athena (Kristin Stokes, the only performer in the seven-member cast who was also in the Off-Broadway production.)

But on Broadway, audiences must now withstand the irksome effects from the overblown Broadway special effects playbook –  the production flashes bright lights in our eyes, and thunderous booms in our ears, drops confetti on our heads, plus (admittedly a novel one) uses leaf blowers to drape us with rolls of toilet paper, as if we’re suburban trees during Halloween. My reaction to these touches reminds me of an old Borscht Belt joke:
Catskill resort guest: “The food in this place is terrible.”
Her friend: ‘Yeah, and such small portions.”
Nobody who’s been to Broadway before is going to ooh or ahhh at the effects, or at the parade of colorful (mostly low-tech puppet) monsters with whom Percy and his pals do battle, via sword or fist or just tumbling and fumbling around — Furies, a minotaur, Medusa, Chime, Hades, a surprise traitor in their midst…..
“The Lightning Thief” has its pleasures. Among them are the chance to see stand-out cast member Jalynn Steele work her way through half a dozen mythic or monster characters. This includes Charon, who ferries people to the Underworld, and late in the show does a full-on, soulful show-stopper called “D.O.A.” with cameos by Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, and Mozart. Not everybody stuck it out to see it the night I attended; two adults sitting to my left and two immediately in front of me left at intermission. But I didn’t see any kids leave.

Click on any photograph by Jeremy Daniels to see it enlarged

The Lightning Thief
Book by Joe Tracz, based on the book by Rick Riordan; Music and lyrics by Rob Rokicki; Choreography by Patrick McCollum; Directed by Stephen Brackett.

Scenic design by Lee Savage, costume design by Sydney Maresca, lighting design by David Lander, sound design by Ryan Rumery, new puppetry designs by Achesonwalsh Studios, fight direction by Rod Winter, hair, wig and makeup dieting by Dave Bova. Cast: Chris McCarrell, Izzy Figueroa, Jorrel Javier, Ryan Knowles, Sam Leicht, Sarah Beth Pfeifer, James Hayden Rodriguez, Jalynn Steele, T. Shyvonne Stewart and Kristin Stokes
Running time: Two hours and ten minutes, including one intermission
Tickets: $39 to $199
The Lightning Thief is on stage through January 5, 2020.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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