I’ve never before been in a venue where people ages 8 – 30 were all decked out in the same orange Camp Half Blood T-shirts, all waiting in their seats with the same childlike excitement. The energy was even rubbing off onto the parents and friends who’d been dragged through the snow to go see the show. The atmosphere of “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” was electric, to say the least.
It’s not just a musical, of course; it’s a phenomenon that started when many people, like myself, were just little fifth graders who devoured each book with more enthusiasm than the last. It’s partly why I know a little too much about Greek mythology, in all honesty.
“The Lightning Thief” is the first of five books in Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” series, and the novel won many awards and is still popular today. The road of adaptations up until this point has been rocky, but the musical perfectly captures the spirit of the books and why fans love the series, even as adults.
“Percy Jackson and the Olympians” and the Movie
Riordan first created Percy Jackson and his world of modern Greek gods as a bedtime story for his eldest son, and from there, “The Lightning Thief” came into being. The first book follows Percy Jackson, a 12-year-old who’s hoping that maybe he can make it through sixth grade without another weird incident that will get him kicked out of yet another school.
When his demon algebra teacher tries to kill him on a field trip, Jackson discovers that the Greek gods and monsters are alive and well in modern-day North America, and many of them would like to kill him and the other demigod campers at Camp Half Blood. Worse yet, the gods more often ignore their kids altogether.
Guided by the hero trainer Chiron and a few more benevolent gods, Jackson and his friends, Annabeth and Grover, unravel a mystery as terrifying as the gods themselves as they traverse the United States to stop a war on Olympus. Themes like identity, family and hope ring throughout the series, as the demigod heroes fulfill prophecies that they never signed up for.
The massive success of the first five-book series launched several spin-off series, including “The Heroes of Olympus” and the “Trials of Apollo” series, which take place in Percy Jackson’s world. Riordan’s Egyptian mythology series, “The Kane Chronicles,” also emerged soon after, along with “Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard,” a Norse mythology trilogy.
As with many popular book series, they made a movie. In 2010, “Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief” appeared in theaters, and fans of the novels were less than enthused. I’m reticent to call it outright hatred, but the heavy disappointment weighed on the fans. Aside from not being faithful to the first book, the producers also made a movie that was unable to capture the humor or the themes that were so important to the books, and they opted for cool graphics and fight scenes instead.
“The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical”
With music and lyrics by Rob Rokicki and book by Joe Tracz, the musical appeared onstage in 2017. Almost immediately, the once-reluctant fanbase swooped in to see what had happened with their beloved childhood series. Fans and critics used their humorous mythology-based puns to deem the show “Worthy of the gods” and “electrifying!”
In the opening number, “Prologue/The Day I Got Expelled,” the demigods sing about their miserable lives as neglected children of the gods, followed by Jackson (Chris McCarrell) sliding onstage and reciting nearly word for word his first sentences from the first book: “Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.” From there, the musical remains faithful to the original text.
Annabeth Chase (Kristin Stokes) and Grover Underwood (Jorrel Javier) complement McCarrell’s Jackson, and the other cast members (James Hayden Rodriguez as Luke and others, fight captain; Ryan Knowles as Chiron and others; Sarah Beth Pfeifer as Clarisse and others; Jalynn Steele as Sally and others) shine in their roles, and they are only more excellent as many of the actors have several characters to manage. There are a lot of props to move around and costumes to quickly switch, and the show’s easy flow is thanks to the actors’ and stage managers’ flawless execution.
The musical also gets creative with many of the scenes that involve magic and monsters, and they use an array of lights and sound effects to accent the songs and create strong atmospheres to match the various moods. The lights mimicking the elevator’s descent into the Underworld capture the change in tone between the smooth jazz of the lobby and the disco-esque Underworld itself. It’s also a clever segue into one of the flashier songs, “DOA.”
The set pieces are minimal but used to the fullest. A piece that’s used as a seat around the campfire is also used as a base for the statues or a prop the cast dances around. Some details, like Jackson’s water ability, play on the humor of the books. Instead of drowning the stage, they hooked toilet paper up to leaf blowers, rendering Jackson the true Supreme Lord of the Bathroom.
The costuming was stunning. Everything from Hades’s (Knowles) sparkly golden suit to Medusa’s (Knowles) head stood out onstage. Even the pieces that weren’t beautiful and/or terrifying, like Cerberus’ (Rodriguez) heads, played into the ever-present humor.
But the quiet moments between the characters were what really brought the musical back to its roots: the unrelenting love that Jackson has for his family and friends, Grover’s guilt, Annabeth’s longing to be noticed and Luke’s resentment are given a good amount of time to flourish onstage, and songs like “Son of Poseidon” show immense character growth and answer questions about how you should face those feelings of neglect and hatred. The musical is everything that the movie missed and everything that the series deserves.
As the lights came up at the end of the show, I couldn’t help but turn to my sister, whose introduction to the series turned her into a voracious reader. I saw my astonishment mirrored on her face and in the faces of the other audience members. The musical keeps the book’s honest, unrelenting voices and pairs them with some sweet songs and spot-on acting.
The awe quickly turned into joy. “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” finally got an adaptation worthy of the demigods and fans that define the series. Even Mr. D would be proud.