Rick Riordan may have single-handedly brought the classics back to liberal arts education. Thanks to him, a whole generation of fans brought up on his “Lightning Thief” series of young-adult novels (and the two movies they inspired) now know the difference between Zeus, Poseidon, Medusa, Hades, Aphrodite and other Greek gods, goddesses and monsters. Marvel Comics superheroes can’t compare.
“The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” opened Wednesday at Broadway’s Longacre Theatre, and it’s a beefed-up version of a one-hour show that first played Off Broadway’s Theatreworks USA in 2014. The new two-act expanded version has already played Chicago and other cities.
“The Lightning Thief” is one of the more modest musical ever to play Broadway. It features a cast of seven, there’s no chorus, and the costumes (by Sydney Maresca) and unit set (by Lee Savage) have a purposeful found-in-the-garbage look that turns out to be half the fun. One tour-de-force special effect features multiple rolls of toilet paper blasted out into the theater on the wind of leaf blowers. It delights because 1) the white paper fills the theater to spectacular effect, and 2) it looks so cheap, like a simple Halloween prank. No moment in Disney’s “Aladdin” or “Frozen” matches the magic of this low-fi coup de théâtre.
That noted, I would like to have seen the original one-hour “Lightning Thief.” The current version feels padded, especially for young theatergoers who already know the story. Joe Tracz’s book follows Riordan’s first novel very closely to establish the oft-expelled student Percy Jackson (Chris McCarrell) as an outcast. He’s what’s called a “half-blood,” meaning that his mother is human and his father is a god. Percy also has ADHD and dyslexia, and he needs to go to a summer camp for half-bloods to learn that such conditions are really gifts from the gods.
In Broadway’s “Lighting Thief,” it takes way too long for Percy to get to camp, be re-educated and launched into his first quest, which is to prevent a war between the gods. That quest fills up Act 2. If only Tracz had found a way to introduce it about 15 minutes into Act 1.
Rob Rokicki’s pop-heavy score is real kid’s stuff that still manages to be more sophisticated than the music and lyrics for recent Broadway hits like “Mean Girls” and “The Prom.” His mix of soft rock, disco and anthems should enthrall anyone not raised on Stephen Sondheim.
Stephen Brackett’s direction wisely puts the musical’s chief asset front and center, and that’s its small cast. McCarrell effectively conveys Percy’s outsider status and goes beyond the Riordan text to suggest an unapologetic androgyny.
Standouts in the ensemble include Ryan Knowles and Jalynn Steele in a variety of roles. Steele goes from mom to schoolgirl to disco diva, as well as a goddess or two in between. Likewise, Knowles morphs repeatedly throughout the show and manages even to channel the late Paul Lynde, placing his Hades in the center space of “Hollywood Squares.” That Knowles and Steele play over a dozen characters between them and do so with such skill is a thrill for even the most seasoned theatergoer. For the first timer, it may be a real shock when so few actors take their bow at the final curtain.