You think your dad (or mom) is a deadbeat? Consider the plight of the young characters in “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical,” a thoroughly endearing family-friendly musical at the Longacre Theatre. Each of the six youngsters in the show has but one fully engaged parent, if that. The other parents are variously absent, negligent, self-obsessed, entirely unknown or downright dangerous.
Also, they are Greek gods. Which is no excuse. After all, you’d expect more from a god than a human, wouldn’t you?
Based on characters created by Rick Riordan in a series of popular young adult novels, the musical, with a book by Joe Tracz and score by Rob Rokicki, was seen in a smaller-scaled Off Broadway production in 2017, and has been expanded for its limited Broadway run. Happily, the show, nimbly directed by Stephen Brackett, has retained its charmingly funky, DIY ethos.
Unlike too many (really, almost all) Broadway musicals aimed at the family market, “The Lightning Thief” doesn’t rely on dazzling special effects or any kind of visual lavishness to hold the audience’s attention. The set is merely some scaffolding set against graffiti-scrawled walls, with a trio of Greek columns to indicate the mythological aspects of its clever storyline, along with some fairly low-tech lighting effects to add infusions of color.
The props include, um, rolls of toilet paper, and the kind of ordinary odds and ends an enterprising youngster could find around the house or the garage and repurpose for play. The musical relies on the imaginations of the kids in the audience to help conjure the semi-fantastical world in which it takes place. It supplies story and characters — all of whom, incidentally, are brought to vibrantly funny life by an exuberant young cast — and trusts the audience to bring the rest of the enchantment required.
The winning Chris McCarrell, lanky and a bit gangly, plays the title character, who manages to get expelled from the latest in a series of schools as the show begins. The son of a single mother, with a weirdly odoriferous stepfather he can’t stand (to smell), Percy has never had any idea who his real father is. Also, he has ADD and dyslexia, which only adds to his feeling of being a perpetual misfit.
Although it is far from didactic or piously preachy — it’s really just a jolly two hours of musical adventuring — “The Lightning Thief” subtly subverts notions of disadvantage. It recasts supposed problems — those learning or attention disorders (turns out there are derived from Percy’s half-god heritage), or merely being raised by a harried single parent — as potential sources of strength and self-worth. What sets you apart may seem at first to be a challenge or a handicap, but it you meet the challenge you can scale heights and achieve daring feats that others can’t.
So it proves for Percy, who after getting the heave-ho from his latest school finds himself mysteriously recruited to join a summer camp for “Half-Bloods.” Here he learns that, like his fellow campers, his unknown father is, yes, a god, although unlike the rest of the kids, he doesn’t at first know which god sired him. He also finds that his friend-from-the-last-school Grover (a wonderfully boisterous Jorrel Javier) is a half-satyr, hirsute legs and all.
The other god-offspring are Luke (a commanding James Hayden Rodriguez), son of the messenger god Hermes, who becomes something of a mentor to Percy; Annabeth (feisty Kristin Stokes), who’s inherited her smarts from the goddess of wisdom, Athena; the fiery Clarisse (Sarah Beth Pfeifer, also feisty), who gets her taste for war games from her father, the god Ares; and Silena (a wry Jalynn Steele), daughter of the goddess of love Aphrodite, who keeps bewitching Silena’s boyfriends, to her natural irritation.
The plot is twisty, although it is economically and strategically laid out by Tracz so that kids can easily follow. Percy is required to embark on a “Killer Quest” – the title of the rousing first act finale – in order to find the thief who stole Zeus’s lightning, after he has been accused of committing the act. This involves Percy, along with Annabeth and Grover, journeying to the Underworld (otherwise known as Los Angeles), where they eventually tangle with the god Hades and solve the mystery of the purloined lightning. (“The Lightning Thief” could be called “Hadestown” for kids, with a little “Harry Potter” sprinkled here and there.)
Rokicki’s songs are in the style of “Rent”-derived Broadway pop-rock: mostly surging, uptempo guitar-based anthems primed to keep young viewers alert, along with the occasional more introverted ballad. The score isn’t particularly distinctive — although the lyrics are playfully funny — but it gets the complicated job done, and there are some delightful diversions. Among the liveliest is the disco-flavored “D.O.A.,” performed by Steele as a Beyonce-like, besequined Charon, who leads the kids down into the Underworld, where the likes of Mozart, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain make cameo appearances.
Special mention should be made of the marvelous Ryan Knowles, who plays a variety of roles, including Percy’s elusive father, Poseidon — hilariously depicted as a laid-back surfer-dude dad, in a tropical-print shirt — and brings to each a distinctive voice, physicality and stylistic attack, not to mention various flavors of subtle or extravagant humor. (He’s virtually unrecognizable as Medusa, got up like Little Edie from “Grey Gardens.”)
But really all the actors radiate invigorating energy, almost all most playing more than one role. The cast seems to be about three times as large as it actually is. And that’s in keeping with the musical’s overall achievement. With comparatively minimal means it brings Percy’s strange odyssey to stage-filling, imagination-engaging life.
“The Lightning Thief” opened at the Longacre Theatre on Wed., Oct. 16, 2019.
Creative: Book by Joe Tracz; Music by Rob Rokicki; Lyrics by Rob Rokicki; Adapted from the book, “The Lightning Thief” by Rick Riordan; Music orchestrated by Wiley DeWeese and Rob Rokicki; Directed by Stephen Brackett; Choreographed by Patrick McCollum; 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.
Producers: Martian Entertainment, Victoria Lang, Lisa Chanel, Jennifer Doyle & Roy Lennox, Van Dean/Meredith Lucio, O’Hara/Rae/Zurcher, Wei-Hwa Huang, Cara Talty, Fisher/Jacobs Baker/Masotti/Prince and TheaterWorksUSA.
Cast: Chris McCarrell, Jorrel Javier, Ryan Knowles, Sarah Beth Pfeifer, James Hayden Rodriguez, Jalynn Steele and Kristin Stokes.