Take it from a very hairy satyr — or a prancing centaur: “The gods are real!”
That’s the emphatic message Rick Riordan delivered to Percy Jackson, the hero of his young adult novel, The Lightning Thief, in 2005. Five years later, the best-selling saga became a blockbuster movie, and now — after a modest off-Broadway run in 2017 — Riordan’s demigod is on tour in The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical, and Knight Theater is one of his first stops.
Joe Tracz’ adaptation of Riordan’s story leans more towards the book than the movie, and Rob Rokicki’s songs add a rocking dimension to Lightning, pushing Percy’s youthful voltage decisively into defiant adolescence and away from the 12-year-olds who were the original protagonists. But that boost doesn’t compare with the jumpstart this new musical delivers for the Greek gods.
You need to remember that these mighty Olympians were already fairly passé in the days of the Roman Empire when Zeus’s name was changed to Jove and Odysseus became Ulysses. Revivals of the Greek gods by 20th century novelists and poets were about the potency of myth rather than the truth of religion, and Homer’s heroes were more likely to be the focus than the immortals on Olympus.
We hear some definite rumblings from Olympus before the action begins at Knight Theater. Before we learn that Zeus’s lightning has been stolen and that Percy is a prime suspect, the lad’s field trip to the Metropolitan Museum — yes, in New York — is punctuated by attacks from a harpy and a minotaur.
Yeah, a very mighty somebody is angry with Percy, and the kid has a lot to learn. After he gets expelled from school, the long-overdue lessons begin. Mom breaks the news that Dad, if not a great parent, was and is unquestionably great. But before Sally can specify Percy’s divine lineage, his implacable pursuers strike again. Now in hindsight, I could second-guess Zeus and politely assert that it would have been more sensible for him to send a more articulate messenger than a minotaur to ask Percy where he’d hidden the damn lightning.
So be advised, action comic book logic often prevails here — which is not very much out of step with the illogic of Greek mythology. When Percy awakens from a coma three days later, he finds himself motherless and enrolled at Camp Half-Blood up in Long Island, together with other kids whose divine parents are equally neglectful. Needless to say, the animus bred among these teenage demigods by their absentee parents chimes well with the Rokicki rock score.
Percy is doubly different from the rest. Until deep into Act 1, he doesn’t know whose son he is. On a dark night, the revelation from Dad will be truly spectacular as Percy and his fellow campers look up in the sky and — amid the obligatory earthshaking tremors — see the god’s signature trident blazoned among the stars. Heavenly signs are the stuff you hear heroes speak about in plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, a dramatic effect that Shakespeare shrewdly revived.
The other distinction that separates Percy is his getting selected to go on the quest to somehow retrieve the stolen lightning and prevent all-out warfare from breaking out among the gods. It’s here that Riordan takes us all the way back to the heroes of Homer’s epics. Just as there was tension and moodiness on the fields of Troy where Achilles, Ajax, Agamemnon, Hector and Paris trod, there are rivalries and animosities among the half-blood campers. Annabeth, neglected by Mama Athena, wants to join Percy and prove herself. Others channel their jealousy, resentment and antagonism into undermining him.
Up above, the unseen gods are supporting their neglected children, using them as instruments against one another, very much like Homer described them behind the scenes of the Trojan War. Mars and Mercury, the gods with Roman names, are sponsoring kids at camp who are going to make it tough on the offspring of Zeus and Poseidon. Singing rock songs with amped-up intensity and sincerity amid flashing lights and minimal scenery, these relentlessly energetic teens do occasionally seem like avatars in a video game.
I guess that’s because so much of the energy is channeled into the music.
Kristen Stokes as Annabeth sported the best vocal chops among our protagonists, but the role of Athena’s daughter isn’t nearly as meaty as the lead. Chris McCarrell is your fairly generic rock ‘n’ roll lead, not quite as iconoclastic as the Footloose outsider at his core, but he’s marvelously awed and illuminated by his magic sword and his mission. Somehow his determined edge never grows stale.
But as often happens with pure heroes and superheroes, Percy and Annabeth are often upstaged by the more outré characters they pal around with or confront. Three of the five supporting players have multiple roles to feast on, and I still find myself torn about which scene stealer I liked most. Perhaps because he rocked the most costumes, I’m giving the nod to Ryan Knowles as Chiron, Hades and Poseidon. Knowles starts out as Percy’s teacher and principal before he reveals himself as a centaur — not an unreasonable stretch, since the original Chiron tutored such adventurers as Achilles and Jason.
Likewise, Percy’s classmate Grover reveals himself as a satyr when our hero comes out of his coma, the pagan equivalent of a guardian angel. Yet somehow, he moonlights as Mr. D, the godly camp director who presides over admissions in a manner that suggests a Hawaiian bartender. Jalynn Steele spends the largest chunk of her stage time as Percy’s mom, warmly nurturing and humdrum, but she gets the most startling cameo as Mrs. Dodd, the substitute teacher who turns into a very shrill harpy. Given a couple of chances to sing, Steele proves to have ample reserves of voltage and sizzle.
Okay, so maybe the gods aren’t real. But at Knight Theater, in The Lightning Thief, they’re still a lot of fun.