Picture this: Chris McCarrell slides down to the edge of the stage, hair disheveled and lips curled into Percy’s infamous, troublemaking smirk, sits eye-level with his audience, and sings his opening line with a cutting combination of snark and weariness: “Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.” When “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” was first announced in January, fans of the series were both excited and understandably anxious, worried that Joe Tracz and Rob Rokicki’s production might indulge in the abounding inaccuracies the movie adaptions’ interpretations of the characters and plots offered. Once McCarrell’s Percy runs onstage, spinning sharp, playful cheek into every line and making faces at the audience throughout the show’s opening number, “The Day I Got Expelled,” though, all fear of a repeat of those mistakes floods away. His entire performance as Percy completely captures every aspect of Percy’s personality, from his anger to his gentle compassion, from his sarcastic and confused sense of humor to his often self-deprecating dejection. His characterization makes its way into his posture and into every word of dialogue, and got so deeply to the core of the character that I found myself crying as he leaned precariously from the second level of the set’s scaffolding during “Good Kid,” despite having heard the song on repeat since its release when the show was first announced.
This deep understanding of the source material extends to every part of the musical, from its characters to its DIY aesthetic and set design to the way it moves its plot. George Salazar’s performances as Grover and Mr. D were equally amazing, the former hitting every aspect of the character’s combination of excitement and nerves, and the latter inducing countless laughs throughout the show. Kristin Stokes, who has only gotten better since the show’s first run back in 2014, portrays all of Annabeth’s pride and drive while still emphasizing Annabeth’s sharp-witted, high-spirited side. Every character Carrie Compere plays is astounding, though the standout is her interpretation of Sally, who is kind and resilient and every bit an echo of the text as the rest of the show. Jonathan Raviv captures Chiron and Poseidon hilariously, Sarah Beth Pfeifer somehow manages to move seamlessly from playing Clarisse to playing woodland creatures, and James Hayden Rodriguez’s Luke is instantly charming. Every character is carefully crafted to match their novel counterpart, an aspect of the show that even extends to their interactions with other characters. The fact that this show goes out of its way to show moments like Luke, Annabeth, and Grover sitting together and talking in the background of a scene, a familiar girl in a floppy hat and braids telling Percy that she and her brother arrived at the Lotus Hotel in 1939, or Silena joining Clarisse’s capture the flag team all show just how involved with the text not only the actors are, but the show is as a whole.
This attention to detail is also found in the dialogue and plot, as a good amount of the lines are lifted directly from the books. A large part of the movies’ failure to please fans was in the fact that they used the base the books created and created their own stories out of them, completely deviating from what the heart of the series was actually about. Many will be happy to hear that this musical tells the story of “The Lightning Thief” from start to finish (which shouldn’t be that hard a feat, but apparently is). It's important to note that the show isn’t just a word-for-word reading of the book, though. It uses the musical form to its advantage to tell a loyal and yet unique version of the story, craft its own hilarious sense of humor, and use music and action to emphasize some of the characters' most important traits. I’ve written before about how a musical is the perfect medium for adapting the Percy Jackson series because of the ability it offers to fluidly blend inner monologue into the story through song, and this musical used that power to its full extent. Since Percy’s actual dialogue in “The Lightning Thief” is normally a bit more biting and angry than the humor found in his narration (See: Percy’s comical opening chapter leading up to his first line of dialogue, “I’m going to kill her.”), the musical is able to use its tone to create the light-hearted atmosphere of Percy’s narration and provide him his inner thoughts through song, both while staying true to the way Percy genuinely speaks. The show’s more stylized moments, like Annabeth and Luke’s arms forming Thalia’s tree as she sings quietly and Grover tells Percy her story with tears in his eyes, (an effect that had me crying for the third or fourth time that night), Annabeth’s choreography during her “I Want” song, “My Grand Plan,” being incorporated into her battle training with her dagger, and Luke singing a twisted reprise of “Good Kid” during the musical’s climax, all take scenes and characters from the novels and heighten them through the unique qualities and opportunities theater offers to create emotions and images that cannot be crafted on paper alone. Additions and changes to the story and moments deleted from the book are done with care, especially for the tone of Percy’s narration, from new scenes like Annabeth teaching Percy how to hold his sword to alterations like Cerberus becoming a DJ for Charon’s incredible introduction to the Underworld. The creators of this show clearly understand the advantages they have working in theater and know how to use them to tell their story effectively.
The entire experience of the show, from the way the theater is absorbed by the sound of thunder overhead in the time before the show starts to the orchestra being left a mess of confetti and toilet paper once it ended, absolutely got to the heart of Percy Jackson’s unique tone, story, and characters. The show is still in previews, so it may change a bit before its opening night on April 4th, but from what I’ve seen, I completely trust this production with the story and cannot wait to see what’s in store for the musical once it solidifies into what I’m sure will be a spectacular final product that will be loved by fans for years to come.