Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” series had a formative hand in my childhood. As I devoured each of the first several books as soon as I could get my hands on them, it was the franchise that taught me reading can be fun.
As cinematic adaptations were released amid the young adult franchise craze of the early 2010s, it also quickly became the franchise that taught me movies can be bad. While the Springfield Little Theatre’s ongoing production of “The Lighting Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” may not reach the high heights of the fiction franchise, it mercifully fails to land among the universe’s low points.
“The Lightning Thief” premiered Off-Broadway in 2014 with music and lyrics written by Rob Rokicki and book by Joe Tracz. It later toured and premiered on Broadway in 2019.
The musical — based on the 2005 novel by Rick Riordan — follows Percy Jackson, a good kid and good son who is sent to Camp Half-Blood, a camp that protects the half-mortal children of the Greek gods.
Here, Percy discovers his lineage as the son of Poseidon, ancient Greek god of the sea. Percy goes on a quest to save his mortal mother from Hades in the Underworld and clear his name in the theft of Zeus’s lightning bolt with his friends Annabeth Chase — daughter of Athena — and Grover Underwood, a satyr.
As its YA roots suggest, “The Lightning Thief” aims at children and families, with this PG-rated Springfield Little Theatre production employing a cast of largely teenagers or younger. The show has two rotating casts for some of its core characters, allowing audiences to see Sword and Shield casts on alternating nights. The preview screening I attended used the Sword cast, with Colter Camp as Percy and Grey Roberts as Grover.
The Little Theatre’s “Lightning Thief” is at its best when it plays to the size of its cast. Across the board, my favorite parts of the show were not the solo moments, but the large group numbers employing the group of over 70 actors. Whether belting through a game of capture the flag or singing angstily around a campfire, this production’s greatest strength was in its numbers. There was not a single moment where I noticed anyone in the army of actors being anything less than 100% engaged in the show.
I was also very impressed by the show’s stellar choreography by choreographer Zoe Zelonsky and assistant choreographer Sophia Birmingham. They deserve just as much credit as the performers for making these numbers as fun as they are.
A large part of this is due to the engagement of the production’s cast. The show is filled to the brim with little details and references the actors throw out. The camp bully does “Camp Rock’s” “Whatever major loser” hand formations. Percy, while pretending his sword is a lightsaber, strikes one of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s iconic Soresu stances. Poseidon, in a moment of neglect, calls Grover “MacGruber” as he saunters off stage. Little details like this highlight the cast’s engagement and feel right at home in a pop culture musical like this.
This isn’t to say that no actors stand out. Missouri State student Katie Orr — playing Annabeth Chase — sings her heart out, and it makes sense that she plays the part in both casts. Grey Roberts — Sword cast’s Grover — gives off the energy of “Shazam!’s” Jack Dylan Grazer with his comedic timing. Alex Knudsen — Sword cast’s Luke Castellan — steals songs with a beautiful voice and dramatically sells his character the best of anyone, while smaller roles like Mr. D — Missouri State student Joseph Galetti — and The Oracle (Avery Tillette) steal their scenes through either comedic talent or singing prowess.
Little Theatre’s “Lightning Thief” does have several issues, most of which at least partly stem from having a cast so young. Several of the fight scenes understandably feel slow or tentative as the actors exercise caution with their weapons. A few of the singers sound off-pitch in several moments, and not all of the harmonies are met. I had an issue understanding a few expositional songs due to a lack of enunciation and projection.
In all fairness, most of my criticisms of the production stem from the musical itself, which I found to be poorly structured and somewhat disengaging. The first act in particular feels slowed down by the musical adaptation trend of “every character or moment we remember gets a song.” As such, we spend an exposition-heavy first half almost entirely at Camp Half-Blood, with most of the major action scenes — which could make for an engaging and technically creative musical adventure — relegated to a single montage song.
This makes the ending feel rushed as they leave in the obligatory sequel-baiting that, while appropriate for a book, seems out of place for a musical. Credit where credit is due, I honestly think the movie’s approach to changing up the third act would’ve worked much better for a stage play than staying true to the book.
Most of these problems could be forgiven if the music itself made an impression. Instead, “The Lightning Thief’s” soundtrack consists of pretty generic pop songs that hit all the expected beats. While I didn’t actively dislike any of them in the moment, I can’t say that I found any one of them to be particularly memorable.
While “The Lightning Thief” itself isn’t particularly strong, Springfield’s Little Theatre does the best it can to put on a fun show. As a fan of Percy Jackson and musical theater, I had an enjoyable time seeing the preview. Even more, I imagine the target audience of kids and families will get a huge kick out of seeing this musical live for the rest of its run.
Springfield Little Theatre’s production of “The Lightning Thief” closes Sunday, April 24 at Landers Theater. Tickets can be purchased on the Springfield Little Theatre website or at the Landers box office. Springfield Little Theatre also provides a student rush discount, offering those with a valid student ID a discounted price of $15 for tickets bought at the box office during the 30 minutes before each show.
Follow Casey Loving on Twitter, @CaseyMLoving
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