Percy Jackson, the demigod anchor to three of Rick Riordan’s Middle Grade series, is the magically-cursed, fictional white boy to beat. Sure, Harry Potter’s lifelong battle with Voldemort is epic. But has he gone toe-to-malevolently-immortal-toe with a titan? Has he teamed up with dozens of diverse, magically-cursed kids? Have he charmed a pegasus and a hellhound into his eternal service? That’s what we thought.
As excellent as the Percy Jackson/Rick Riordan universe is, though, only the most avid young readers have been able to experience it in the 14 years since The Lightning Thief was first published. Despite sprawling across three series (and a half, if you count Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard) and featuring electric visual elements begging to jump to the big screen, the two film adaptations of Percy’s world are, as far as the books’ legions of fans are concerned, disappointing. And considering that 20th Century Fox has historically shown zero interest in returning the film rights to Riordan and/or Disney, the chances of another film or TV adaptation being attempted are…low.
Theater is an entirely different (mythical) beast. The 2014 one-act Off-Broadway musical adaptation of the first Olympians book, The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical (henceforth, The Percy Jackson Musical), was so warmly received by audiences and critics alike that not only was a second act commissioned, but the production is now touring North America. Paste attended a performance at the Kennedy Center when the company was in Washington, D.C., and if the audience’s energy is any indication, readers will be clamoring for the rest of the series to find a place on the stage.
Adapted by Rob Rokicki and Joe Tracz (the latter who also served as story editor on Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, another adaptation of a beloved Middle Grade property), The Percy Jackson Musical is an exhilarating romp of a production. Its low-tech, shoestring take on Percy Jackson’s origin story delivers the exact blend of earnest and goofy entertainment to do justice to Riordan’s universe.
You might think only an enormous CGI budget and a stable of set, prop and makeup geniuses could bring the mythical creatures to life, but the exact opposite is true. The monstrous details in Percy Jackson’s world are so far beyond the bounds of reality, that to try and use Hollywood magic to recreate it is to take a long dive into disappointment. Percy Jackson, son of Poseidon, can control the ocean. Any filmmaker’s vision of that is going to pale in comparison to the intensity of what an imaginative reader’s mind creates. Better to skip flashy effects and jerry-rig toilet paper air guns to whip out when Percy’s big moment finally hits.
Yes, Percy’s demigod powers are represented in the musical by toilet paper air guns (see the photo above by Jeremy Daniel). Grover’s goat legs are pinned to the sides of his pants. The harpy Percy battles has papier-mâché wings puppeteered from behind by two cast members. Chiron reveals himself to be a centaur by leaping out of his wheelchair and prancing around with a horsetail pinned to his rear end.
It is as far as one could get from realistically depicting the godly magic and monstrous misadventures in a Riordan story, and it is perfect.
Similarly perfect—evoking the democratic intimacy at the heart any Riordan story—is the show’s decision to take the sprawling cast in the book version of The Lightning Thief and spread the roles amongst a cast of just seven actors (plus three understudies), two of whom, Chris McCarrell (Percy) and Kristin Stokes (Annabeth), play one character each. This leaves dozens of characters for the remaining five members of the ensemble to take on, a feat they accomplish through a combination of low-budget costume changes and extremely game performances.
Ryan Knowles, playing Chiron, Poseidon and Medusa (among others), was a particular standout at the D.C. performance, his basso voice serving its own kind of physical comedy every time he made a character change. But that doesn’t mean the remaining cast members—Jorrel Javier (Grover, Mr. D), Sarah Beth Pfeifer (Clarisse, the harpy, others), James Hayden Rodriguez (Luke, Ares, others) and Jalynn Steele (Sally, Charon, others), not to mention McCarrell and Stokes—are any less entertaining to watch as they leap from one Big Olympic Mood to another.
The fact that they’re adults playing many teen roles is no more a hurdle to believing in their performances than is the fact that they are a more racially diverse cast than The Lightning Thief’s characters are written. This constant reshuffling of roles allows The Percy Jackson Musical to echo the diverse characters Riordan brings into later books following the more uniformly white The Lightning Thief—a feat that couldn’t be achieved by the kind of one-to-one casting traditional adaptations depend on.
As thrilling as the staging and performances in this Off-Broadway production are—and we haven’t even touched on the rollicking songs—what ultimately marks The Percy Jackson Musical as an adaptation coup is how aggressively welcoming it is to the books’ most passionate fans. With an opening number that contains lyrics like “Yeah the gods are real/And they have kids/And those kids have/Issues (issues!!!)” and “Is it me/Or is Greek mythology/Not deeply weird?”, the show knows how silly its source material can be.
But even as Tracz and Rokicki pepper in the most absurd puns imaginable (some of which are addressed to the audience), they never lose sight of the fact that the demigod heroes of Greek legend/Riordan’s present live lonely, dangerous lives that readers have empathized with since the beginning. Those readers made up the giddy audience in D.C., and it was obvious that they trusted The Percy Jackson Musical to do their beloved half-bloods right.
Now we need Tracz and Rokicki to tackle the remaining Percy Jackson volumes and the touring ensemble to sign on for a hundred more years playing cursed teenagers. Don’t tell us that sounds like a Sisyphean task—they’re the ones who took on Olympian heroics in the first place.
We’re sure they’re up to the task.
The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical’s North American Tour runs through July.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.