Local Arts

Review: One’s feeling about ‘Percy Jackson’ musical might hinge on a plastic squirrel

Chris McCarrell, who originated the lead role in the off-Broadway production of “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” in 2017, stars in the national tour now playing in Charlotte.
Chris McCarrell, who originated the lead role in the off-Broadway production of “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” in 2017, stars in the national tour now playing in Charlotte.

If you’re expecting “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” to wow you with lavish sets, lush atmosphere and big-budget special effects (and one might, given the scope and sweep of the books and movies that have come before it), you should know: This is not that show.

Instead, the 2017 off-Broadway musical — which launched a national tour last week in Chicago and is in the middle of a six-day run at Charlotte’s Knight Theater — employs an almost black-box-like approach to staging that, on the one hand, refreshingly encourages audiences to use their imaginations. On the other, it occasionally veers into aesthetic territory that is so minimalist as to be laughable.

Written by Joe Tracz, with music and lyrics by Rob Rokicki, it’s sourced from the first book in Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson & the Olympians” young-adult fantasy series. It follows a boy-demigod who goes from coping with ADHD, dyslexia and minor school-disciplinary issues to coping with the fact that he might be the key to preventing a war between the gods.

Hollywood churned out a couple of middling film adaptations of Riordan’s books — in 2010 and 2013, with fresh-faced actor Logan Lerman as Percy — but then Tracz and Rokicki took a shot at adding songs, rock riffs and a bit of ham and cheese to the original jumping-off point for the story.

“The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” opens with a bang — or, more specifically, a frighteningly loud crack of simulated thunder that makes the audience snap to attention.

This is appropriate, though, since you’ll need to pay lots of it during a whirlwind eight-minute opening number (“The Day I Got Expelled”) that gives the shortest crash course in Greek mythology ever and establishes that “the gods are real/and they have kids/and those kids have issues”; dives into a flashback that first sees Percy (Chris McCarrell) attacked by a substitute teacher who transforms into a demon creature during a class field trip to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, then sees him getting informed of his expulsion by a sympathetic Latin teacher who also may not be what he seems; and 3) ends with Percy belting angsty frustrations: “I didn’t wanna be a half-bloooooood!”

The plot thickens quickly (and this all happens in the first 15 minutes to set up for the central plot, so even if you’re coming to this tale fresh, these are not significant spoilers): Percy’s best friend Grover (Jorrel Javier) is revealed as a satyr, having suddenly sprouted goat-like features below the waist. There’s a scary — for younger kids, at least — minotaur attack that leaves Percy’s human mother for dead while also knocking Percy out of commission. When he comes to, he’s at a summer camp populated by other children of gods and run by a cranky alcoholic (Javier again).

James Hayden Rodriguez. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.jpg
James Hayden Rodriguez as the minotaur who attacks Percy Jackson and his mother. Jeremy Daniel

By the end of the hourlong first act, Percy learns which god conceived him, and is accused of a crime — stealing Zeus’ lightning bolt — that he didn’t commit. So he, Grover and Athena’s daughter Annabeth (Kristin Stokes) set off on a cross-country road trip hoping to find the real thief.

Any kid who’s been through the books or seen the movies shouldn’t have much trouble following along, since the musical is a faithful adaptation. But the convoluted marriage of Greek mythology and “Percy Jackson” mythology will be perplexing to newbies, as will the fact that McCarrell’s six co-stars all play several supporting roles. (Even adults might at times have to do a quick reset to keep everybody straight.)

Also, Lee Savage’s super-simple set design often requires the audience to use their imaginations, which also might make it more challenging for newcomers to keep up with what’s happening.

That set consists of scaffolding on the sides of the stage that holds a small handful of musicians and sound folks, and more scaffolding at the rear — standing in front of three Doric columns and a graffiti-covered wall. “The Percy Jackson Musical” isn’t the most minimalist musical I’ve ever seen inside the Knight, but its staging has a lot more in common with black-box theater than it does with its movie counterpart, which reportedly cost $95 million to make.

It’s a fine line, Savage’s approach; it’ll delight some, but it’ll bewilder others. There undoubtedly will be grown-ups in the room wondering, Should I be laughing along with this, or should I be laughing at it?

At one point, a character establishes they’re sitting beside a lake by saying to Percy, essentially, “Hey look, we’re sitting beside a lake,” as recorded sounds of frogs start playing. To establish that they’re at the summer camp, the cast hangs a big orange banner from the scaffolding that reads “Half-Blood Camp.” (A young couple near me snickered.) Smaller pieces of scaffolding are pushed together to create a Greyhound bus, an Amtrak train and a forest.

In the absurdly goofy moment of stagecraft, Percy, Grover and Annabeth confront a squirrel played by ... a small plastic squirrel, behind which an actress — in full view of the audience — spouts squeaky gibberish that Grover translates for the group. (This might be where you fully commit to loving this thing — or where it totally loses you.)

And in the most absurdly awesome moment of stagecraft ... well, let’s just say it involves high-powered cordless leaf blowers and multiple rolls of toilet paper.

Rokicki’s songs aren’t going to stick with you for very long — the closest thing to a showstopper is “D.O.A.,” Jalynn Steele’s second-act, welcome-to-the-underworld number — and there are probably two or three more self-discovery anthems than we need to get the message.

The Lightning Thief Company. Photo by Jeremy Daniel (5).jpg
Photo: Jeremy Daniel Jeremy Daniel

But each of the 19 songs that populate “The Lightning Thief”’s 2-hour and 10-minute run time (including a 20-minute intermission) is sung with alarming conviction by all seven principals. In particular, McCarrell, Javier and Ryan Knowles have a manic energy that suits the pace of the show well, with Knowles a chameleonic standout who threatens to steal it with a Jim Carrey-esque portrayal of Hades and a Jeff Lebowski-esque portrayal of Poseidon near the climax (though he does deserve a ding for a slightly but noticeably flubbing a line in the first act).

Knowles also plays Percy’s sympathetic Latin teacher, who early on reveals himself to be a centaur, a half-human/half-horse creature. How does that transformation manifest itself? By costume designer Sydney Maresca adding a 2-1/2-foot pony tail to Knowles’s pants.

That’s it.

To be fair, that’s what the cast loves about the show. “We wanted to keep the idea that we’re finding props and things to play with, and to make our show,” McCarrell told Observer correspondent Solange Reyner in an interview backstage before Tuesday’s opening-night performance in Charlotte. Added cast member Kristin Stokes: “This isn’t CGI. This is like real theater magic.”

I can only imagine the plastic squirrel would happily chitter in agreement.

‘The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical’

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Knight Theater, 430 S. Tryon St.

Tickets: $25-$94.50.

Details: 704-372-1000; www.blumenthalarts.org.