A Broadway audience filled with young people is an exciting, terrifying challenge. Walking into the Longacre Theatre on a Friday night to see The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical, I was briefly taken aback by the number of kids and teenagers sitting around me. I had somehow briefly forgotten that this show is designed for, you know, kids. I didn’t fear an unserious audience – if anything, a younger-skewing crowd tends to up the ante. To generalize, kids can only moderate their responses so much.
Case in point – the day before I saw Lightning Thief, I was a seat-filler at a student matinee of Mfoniso Udofia’s runboyrun & In Old Age at New York Theatre Workshop. A double bill depicting grief and mental illness, the three-and-half-hour show was, admittedly, a tough ask for high-schoolers. At times when the writing lost them (as it often did me, even as a huge Udofia fan) the students couldn’t hide it. They fidgeted; they phased out; they leaned sadly on each other’s shoulders. Still, few talked or got on their phones. It wasn’t an issue of rudeness, and honestly, it wasn’t that they weren’t ready for it either. The work simply was not grabbing them.
Meanwhile a younger-targeting show like Lightning Thief does not want to seem too desperate for approval. No question this show is eager to please. It’s fast paced, loud and frequently silly. At least one of composer and lyricist Rob Rokicki’s songs is entirely yelled (“Another Terrible Day”), while others lean heavily on belting. Director’s Stephen Brackett’s staging, though spare, is frenetic and never pauses for breath. The cast matches this energy and then some.
The story follows Percy Jackson (Chris McCarrell), a smart, quick-witted kid with ADHD and a knack for getting expelled. Trouble just seems to find Percy, as in the opening number, when a Fury from the underworld attacks him on a class trip. When his mother is later killed by a Minotaur, Percy finds sanctuary at Camp Half-Blood, a training facility for Greek demigods. Turn out Percy is the son of Poseidon – and a few training montages later, he is off on an epic quest to recover Zeus’ stolen lightning bolt and stop war amongst the Gods.
Brackett, Rokicki and book writer Joe Tracz run with one of Greek mythology’s more twisted themes – humans as helpless pinballs, knocked this way and that by the whims of selfish Gods. As Percy and his friends bounce from one encounter to the next, we get that same perverse enjoyment out of each new heartache and strife. Not every set-piece works. An incident with an exploding bus is mostly confusing. But the ones that do work, like a frightening encounter with Medusa, are just tremendous fun.
Joe Tracz’s book sits snugly between silly and sincere, injecting laughs without ever condescending to the characters. Percy in particular is a wonderful character, warm and witty, smart-alecky without ever becoming grating. McCarrell’s performance helps a lot in this area, matching effortless charisma with tremendous vocals. His voice is a wonder, particularly on the rousing “Good Kid,” probably Rocicki’s strongest tune.
Unfortunately, as in his work on Be More Chill, Tracz does underserve his female characters. Giving your heroine a big solo about her goals and dreams does not substitute for actually letting them take direct action in this story. Tracz made that mistake with Chill’s Christine Canigula, and sadly repeats it here with Annabeth Chase, Percy’s far more competent confidante.
Brackett is an off-beat director who stumbled onto Broadway with Be More Chill, but still seems most comfortable when he can go weird. In Chill, he got that chance with the number “The Pitiful Children,” which Brackett staged as a thrilling technological apocalypse. Here, Brackett gets to let loose with “D.O.A.” a number imaging Charon, a ferryman of souls entering the underworld, as an aspiring nightclub singer. Charon leads talented deceased souls – including a children’s choir – in a gleeful celebration of the afterlife. The number gives us just the briefest glimpse of the forever damned having the time of their deaths – then the shows goes on, leaving them behind forever. It’s truly bizarre.
At other times it feels like the writers are holding back from darker or weirder themes, as though they fear the sighs and nodding-off that greeted my serious student matinee. The self-interest of the Camp Half-Blood leaders, who cast Percy out when he becomes a target, is provocative but goes unexplored. Most intriguing is Percy’s relationship with his absentee father Poseidon. The show’s conclusion seems to suggest this absence was, in fact, selfless. That’s an easy comfort that rings false. We could admit he’s just kind of a dick – the kids can take it.
It’s true that kids are the harshest critics. Nothing is gained by throwing them into a work that won’t resonate with their experience. Still by the same token, a younger audience also knows when it’s being coddled. Lightning Thief is a good time, but it’s at its most fun when the weirder and darker veins are tapped. If the creative team had dug a little deeper in this area, this very good show might have been even better.