Oriental Theater

The Lightning Thief

The Percy Jackson Musical

At the Oriental Theatre

By Dan Zeff

Chicago –In 2005 Rick Riordan published “The Lightning Thief,” which introduced teenager Percy Jackson, a character who went on to captivate millions of young readers through multiple series of novels about Jackson and his adventures among the gods and goddesses of ancient Greek mythology. In short order Riordan built a children’s literature empire that has spread to stories about ancient Egyptian and ancient Norse mythology. But” The Lightning Thief’ started’ it all.

“The Lightning Thief” was adapted into movies in 2010 and 2013 that both got a cold reception from reviewers. But a couple of years ago the novel was shaped into a pop-rock musical by Joe Tracz (book) and Rob Rokicki that became a hit off Broadway and has been touring the country with much commercial and critical success. That production is stopping at the Oriental Theatre for a one-week run that, based on the enthusiastic reaction of a large youngster and adult opening night audience, could settle in for a much longer visit.

                      Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Percy Jackson is one of a group of modern young characters, like Harry Potter and Jacob Portman from the Miss Peregrine’s Peculiars stories who became unlikely heroes in fantasy novels. They are all ordinary lads struggling through not particularly satisfying lives until they are startled to discover they possess magical powers. Those powers plunge the boys into a series of fantasy adventures in which they, at first reluctantly, lead the good guys (youngsters like themselves) into battle against implacable forces of evil.

We first meet Percy as he is about to be expelled from his sixth school in six years. The boy has dyslexia and attention deficit problems that make him an outsider until he learns he is a “half blood,” a child with a mortal mother and a god for a father, in his case the powerful Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea. Percy’s mother sends her son away to a half blood camp for his protection because villainous supernatural forces are gathered to eliminate him as a threat to their nasty plans.

At the camp, Percy meets an assortment of classmates and instructors, notably Annabeth, the daughter of the goddess Athena,  and Grover, a satyr who provides typical sidekick comedy relief. The crisis at hand is the theft of a lightning bolt belonging to the chief god Zeus. The theft will start a war among the gods that could destroy western civilization and Percy is selected to find the missing bolt and return it to Zeus before a catastrophe descends.

From that point on, the story is crowded with incidents and characters that might be difficult to follow for audiences unfamiliar with Riordan’s original narrative. Viewers would benefit from reading the novel before attending the show, not only to make the tumult of adventures more accessible but also because the book is a great read. Still, even audiences coming in cold to the story should get a real ride out of the rush of adventures, thanks to the skillful retelling by Tracz and Kokicki, the creative staging, and the splendid cast on display at the Oriental.

A cast of seven performers, all of them except Chris McCarrell as Percy playing multiple roles that demand rapid changes in costume and just as rapid changes in personality. They perform 18 numbers, a score filled with emotion and wit. Everyone on stage sings and dances with passion and exuberance during the two-hour two-act production and physical conditioning is not the least of the ensemble’s many merits.

The story suggests the need for massive special effects in both sets and costumes, but “The Lightning Thief” gets by handsomely with an imaginative production created by a cluster of clever designers and orchestrated by director Stephen Brackett. The ancient Greek setting is suggested by columns at the rear of the stage and ancient Greek graffiti and drawings on the wall. But the show has a delightful contemporary look, with the characters in blue jeans and Hawaiian shirts. Leaf blowers send rolls of toilet paper flying in to the audience to approximate a toilet eruption in a camp restroom. Dramatic lighting and sound effects churn the action scenes and there are startling masks and costumes that create, sometimes with chilling effect, the ferocious Minotaur and the evil goddess Medusa.

McCarrell is a winning Percy, with a potent voice and an expressive acting manner. He is given invaluable support by the acting skills and belting voices of Jorrel Javier, Ryan Knowles, Sarah Beth Pfeifer, James Hayden Rodriguez, Jalynn Steele, and Kristin Stokes. Javier is probably the first among equals for his duel impersonation of the irritable god Dionysus and the hapless satyr Grover.

Behind the scenes, the imaginative design contributions come from Lee Savage (scenic design), Sydney Maresca (costumes), David Lander (lighting), Ryan Rumery (sound), and Dave Bova (wigs, hair, and makeup). Commendations also go to choreographer Patrick McCallum, fight director Rod Kinter (there are lots of sword fights), and especially Wiley DeWeese, the leader of the four-member band pounding out the score that keeps the show’s musical temperature in the red zone.

By the final scene Percy has recovered the stolen lightning bolt and saved western civilization. He has matured as he survived his hairbreath escapes and his bonding with other half bloods. At the end of the evening, a determined and brave Percy willingly embraces his destiny as a hero, with the promise that more adventures lying ahead that will test his mettle (and provide a painless exposure in the fascinating world of classical mythology). The opening night audience certainly shouted out its readiness for more of the same at the curtain call.

The show gets a rating of                                  January 2019

“The Lightning Thief” runs through Sunday at the Oriental Theatre, 24 West Randolph Street. Performances are Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are$25 to $80. Call 312 977 1710 or visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com.

Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com.

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