Review of NKU’s “The Lightning Thief, The Percy Jackson Musical”
By Doug Iden
Amidst a swirl of Greek gods, sword fights, mythical creatures and a giant quest, The Lightning Thief, The Percy Jackson Musical gallops onto the stage at Northern Kentucky University. Based upon the first of the popular Percy Jackson fantasy novels by Rick Riordon, our protagonist (Alex Simpson) bemoans the fact that he is a misfit (or, more appropriately for the play, a myth-fit) who is constantly getting into trouble and is ostracized.
The quirkiness of the play is manifested early with a projection on the curtain which displays the play’s title with the letter L in Lightning constantly moving and disappearing, surrounded by a fringe of electrical symbols in constant motion.
While visiting an art museum on a school field trip, twelve-year old Percy is suddenly attacked by a teacher who has transformed into a Fury. Latin teacher Mr. Brunner (Field Oldham in one of 7 different roles) gives Percy a magic sword and he defeats the Fury. Afterwards, however, Mr. Brunner and Percy’s friend Grover (Je’Shaun Jackson) state that they never saw the teacher or the Fury. Because he left the group, Percy is expelled (“The Day I Got Expelled”) and is extremely embittered. He feels abandoned by his father, whom he has never met, and is disgusted by his step-father. His mother (Gabby Casto) tries to console him and sends him to a summer camp. Mother is later killed by a Minotaur.
At Camp Half-Blood, the hyperactive and dyslectic Percy meets a variety of unusual characters who profess to be mythical creatures or demi-gods with mixed parentage of Greek gods (such as Athena, Demeter, Hermes, etc.) and humans. His buddy Grover is a satyr (goat-footed protector), Mr. D (Ezra Crist) is Dionysus (God of wine and madness), Mr. Brunner is a Centaur and newfound friends Luke (Zachery Farmer) is the son of Hermes the messenger and Annabeth claims to be the daughter of Athena.
Percy is told that he is the son of Poseidon (God of the seas) and that there is an impending war between Zeus, Hades and Poseidon. None of the Gods were supposed to have children and Percy is accused of stealing Zeus’ lightning rod. To try to rescue his mother and recover the lost lightning rod, Percy, Grover and Annabeth embark on a “Killer Quest” into Hades. (And that’s only Act one.)
The play is very interesting but the plot is a bit convoluted, even by fantasy standards. It helps to know a bit about Greek mythology but it is not essential. The play is also very funny with many sight gags like the centaur who struts like a horse while waving his tail and Poseidon dressed in an Hawaiian shirt and sandals with a “surfer dude” attitude. There are also many contemporary allusions since the Gods have 21st Century attitudes and language. During one scene in Hades, we see Mozart, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, James Brown and Betty White. (I’m sure Betty would approve.) Chris Monell is hilarious as a tattooed rock star Ares and the despicable step-father. There is a whole humor arc about squirrels played by Ellie Bennett.
With the exception of the characters of Percy and Grover, all of the other actors play multiple roles. Megan Carlson wins the Guinness multi-role award by playing 8 different characters including Clarisse who is really the Medusa. In all, twelve actors play over 50 parts.
The music by Rob Rokicki is not memorable but the primarily rock and roll score is fitting for the show. His lyrics are both plot and character driven for the most part so listening to the lyrics is crucial to following the story. You will not be humming the songs as you leave.
The singing is excellent throughout led by the primary leads of Simpson (Percy), Je’Shaun Jackson (Grover) and Ellie O’Hara (Annabeth). Other outstanding performances include Casto (as the mother and the Oracle), Carlson in “Put You in Your Place” and Jeremiah Savon Jackson as Hades (and others). There are several full cast songs including “Prologue”, “Good Kid”, “The Tree on the Hill” and the finale “Bring On The Monsters”. One thing I enjoy about NKU (especially opening night) is the enthusiasm of the audience, half of whom seem to be students, friends or relatives of the performers.
Technically, the play is fascinating designed by Jo Sanburg, Kevin Havlin and Rob Kerby. The basic set design is simple with several columns on each side and steps leading to a bridge behind (designed by Tao Wang). What makes the show eye-popping however, are the graphics projected on the rear of the stage and the columns. The images include gargoyles, the Metropolitan Art Museum, Greek landscapes, ocean waves, forests, storms, the night sky and many others. Normally, I am leery of tech heavy productions since the spectacle and the “gee-whiz-golly” aspect tends to overwhelm both the characters and the plot. Here, however, they merge beautifully primarily due to the strength of the actors.
The costumes (Ronnie Chamberlain) must have blown the budget. You start with contemporary teen clothes and add Satyr legs, Fury’s capes, Minitour’s feet, James Brown’s wig, Janis Joplin’s rags, Cerberus dancers, etc. and you have a huge amount of costuming. Also, many costume changes for all the multi-roles.
There is a lot of interesting dancing and sword fighting choreography (Andrea Tutt), good (and not too loud) music led by Damon Stevens and all melded together by Director Jamey Strawn.
While I had a little trouble getting into the show since I was not familiar with the Percy Jackson characters I became totally absorbed very quickly. In a somewhat truncated theater season so far, this is a highlight. So, grab your “winged shoes”, your chariot and your old copy of Bullfinch’s Greek Mythology and hasten down to NKU through March 6. The Gods will be pleased. Contact NKU Theatre Box Office HERE for tickets. The show runs until March 6, 2022 in the Corbett Theatre.