Thursday, August 17, 2017

Album Review: The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical

As you probably know, I am a huge fan of Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians book series. By extension, I'm a big fan of its sequel series and spin-off series.  I'm always very excited when I hear that a new Percy Jackson project is underway.  As such, you can probably guess hoe ecstatic I was when I heard that an Off-Broadway musical adaption of The Lightning Thief, the first novel in the series, was being produced.  Unfortunately, I never got to attend a performance, but I have listened to the original cast recording album. That is what we are here to talk about.  Can this musical distill the spirit of Percy Jackson in the form of musical theater?  Actually, yes it can, and quite well to boot.



First, a bit of background.  The musical first premiered in 2014 as a one-hour production as part of a free theater series.  In 2017, the musical was revived and expanded into a full Off-Broadway production.  This review is going to cover the 2017 Off-Broadway production of the musical.  Whenever you see me referring to the musical, I'm going to be referring to the 2017 version.  Think of the 2014 version as the demo reel, while the 2017 version was the finished product.   

I'll go ahead and summarize the plot, for the sake of those who might not otherwise know.  Percy Jackson is a down on his luck sixth grader.  He tries his best to be a good kid, but for one reason or another, he always gets kicked out of school at the end of the year.  On a field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art his math teacher Mrs. Dodds turns into a monster and tries to kill him.  Thankfully, Percy is saved by using a magic pen/sword, given to him by his supercool Latin teacher Mr. Brunner.  Before long, Percy learns that his best friend Grover Underwood is a satyr, Mr. Brunner is the mythical centaur Chiron, and Percy himself is a demigod.  The Greek gods are real and they're currently living in America.

Chiron and Grover take Percy to Camp Half-Blood, a summer camp for demigods.  A few misadventures later, Percy discovers that his father is Poseidon and that his mother is being held prisoner in the underworld.  Worse still, Zeus' master lightning bolt has gone missing, and Poseidon is the prime suspect.  Percy and Grover, along with a daughter of Athena named Annabeth Chase, must travel across America on a quest to save Percy's mom and stop the impending Olympian civil war.  

I think I should reiterate that this is going to be a review of the album, not the musical proper.  Like I said, I was unable to attend any of the performances, but I sure wish I had.  When I first heard about this musical, I wasn't quite sure how to feel.  I'm still feeling fairly burned over how badly bungled the movie "adaptations" were, and I was quite sure what a rock opera would be like.  I been seeing that the musical was getting rave reviews from both critics and fans of the book, and Rick Riordan himself seemed to have a fairly positive view of it.  So, then the album was release onto iTunes.  With trembling fingers, I pressed the preview button on the opening song.  I was completely blown away by what I heard.

It was as if I was listening to the book come to life in musical form.  So, I decided to sample all of the other songs, then I bought the album, listened to the songs in full and here I am reviewing the album.  From that first instant I knew that Rob Rokicki and Joe Tracz had a deep love and respect for the source material.  They stayed true to the plot and spirit of the book, but made changes where necessary to accommodate the new medium.  That is the method of adaptation that I prefer best.  I thank the gods of Olympus on high that these gentlemen specifically set out, from the start, to be truer to the books than the movies were.  

Now then, let's talk about the songs themselves.  To start off we have "Prologue/The Day I Got Expelled."  It starts us off strong with some electric guitar and a jazzy piano riff.  The demigods begin by singing about various grievances against their godly parents before Percy takes over and explains the start of his story.  Following this we have the song "Strong."  It's an acoustic guitar song where Mrs. Jackson tries to cheer Percy up by telling him that the things that make him different are what make him strong.  This one made me tear up a bit.  Not only does it sound exactly like the sort of song Mrs. Jackson would sing, but it reminded me of conversations I've had with my own mother.  

"The Minotaur / The Weirdest Dream" is, admittedly, more of a transition than anything else.  Still, it serves its purpose and it does end on a funny note, with Percy meeting Annabeth for the first time.  After that we are treated to "Another Terrible Day" where Mr. D, better known as Dionysus, grumpily sings about having to deal with needy campers.  Or should I say, unhappy campers?  It's a fun song accompanied by a bouncy piano number.  It definitely sounds like something Mr. D would sing.  "Their Sign" is another great humanizing moment for Percy as he questions why his father hasn't shown up over the years.  We also get some great moments of Chiron's fatherly side.

Next up, we have a high energy electric guitar song "Put You in Your Place." This was exactly the sort of song Clarisse would sing.  A high energy rock song is certainly fitting for a daughter of Ares.  I also liked how the song also showcased Annabeth's battle strategies.  "The Campfire Song" is...well, an acoustic guitar campfire song.  The demigods all bond over the difficulties of having divine parents.  It's a fun song that help develop the characters.  "The Oracle" is another transitional song, but it serves it's purpose and sets Percy and company on their quest.  

"Good Kid" is a ballad about Percy's anticipation for his coming quest.  He reflects on all the knocks life has dealt him, and how he strives to be a good kid, but always screw up.  There have been many times I feel as though this could be my life's theme song, but I digress.  "Killer Quest!" brings the first act to an end.  Percy, Annabeth and Grover sing optimistically about the quest they've just set out and, and how nothing can bring them down.  Then the second act begins and, as "Lost!" details, they've become lost in the forests of New Jersey.  Out of all the songs, I found this one to be the weakest, but even it had some entertaining moments.  

"My Grand Plan" gives us a closer look at Annabeth's hopes and dreams.  You really get to see that, though she puts on a tough exterior, she's got just as many worries and doubts as Percy.  In fact, though they have different sounds, you could see this as Annabeth's version of "Good Kid."  Moving right along, "Drive" sees our heroes moving across America on their way to Los Angles.  It has a country twang with lots of banjos and harmonicas.  We also get a surprise cameo appearance by Bianca di Angelo, along with mention of Nico.  It's a fun little mythology gag, since they didn't appear in the books until The Titan's Curse.  Speaking of which, we're also treated to a stop at the dam snack bar at The Hoover Dam, another mythology gag. 

"The Weirdest Dream (Reprise)" is another transition song, but again, it serves its purpose.  "The Tree on the Hill" is a heartfelt song that details the story of Thalia Grace, and by extension, Grover's greatest failure.  You really want to give Grover a hug and tell him that it'll all be okay.  I did notice that the cast seemed to be saying Talia, but that could have been a mispronunciation, or an awkward pronunciation.  For a bit of mood whiplash, "D.O.A." delivers some funky disco beats.  It also has some darkly humorous moments.  For example, Charon points out a newly arrived boys’ choir, and cheerily remarks on how lucky they are that their voices will never change.

Out of all the song, "Son of Poseidon" is easily my favorite.  It felt like everything had been building up to this song.  Percy finally comes to terms with who he is, accepts that his dad night not be perfect, makes it out of the underworld and has his big showdown with Ares.  It's big, bombastic, triumphant and I wouldn't have it any other way.  

"The Last Day of Summer" takes place after the bolt has been returned and are hero are back at camp.  Percy is trying to figure out what to do with his future, and we discover who the lightning thief is.  Not really much of a spoiler to say that it's Luke, and it's certainty an effective turning to the dark side sort of song.  That leaves us with the final number, "Bring on the Monsters."  Percy and company accept that their lives will never be normal, but normal is a myth, and they can take on any challenge.  A perfectly good song, and a good way to end the musical, but perhaps a bit less memorable compared to "Son of Poseidon."

As you can see, the songs are all wonderful, and I love them all.  Now then, let's talk a bit more about the plot.  Over all it follows the book fairly closely; certain scenes are condensed for time; a few changes are made here and there to accommodate the new medium.  A few things were skipped over, such as the encounter with Procrustes and the side trip to retrieve Ares shield, but overall it stayed true to the plot of the book.  The musical also did a great job of staying true to the heart of the books.  The dialogue and song lyrics sound like they could have come straight from the books.  In fact, certain lines actually are lifted directly from the book.  It was just the right balance of humor, action, wittiness and heartfelt.  

I thought that all of the casting choices worked really well.  Theater is one of those things where you gotta use your imagination at times, but that's part of the fun.  For example, the main characters are repeatedly stated to be twelve, but their actors are in their twenties.  Again, this is a common occurrence in many theater productions.  On a similar note, Carrie Compere, the actress who plays Mrs. Jackson, is black despite Chris McCarrell being white.  However, Carrie absolutely owns every song she sings, and she perfectly captured the essence of Mrs. Jackson's character.  She and Chris gelled really well together, and their on-stage relationship just felt really authentic.  I can certainly see why the directors cast her.

Speaking of Chris McCarrell, as far as I'm concerned, he is the live action Percy Jackson.  His voice is actually fairly close to how I always envisioned Percy sounding, and absolutely nails Percy's character.  The same goes for Kristen Stokes' performance as Annabeth.  As I side note, I'd like to take a moment to say how grateful I am that this musical has a blonde Annabeth.  Fun fact, when a fan expressed concern that the musical would be as inaccurate as the movies, the musical's Twitter account responded with: "We've got a blonde Annabeth, so we're already ahead of the curve."  

George Salazar pulls double duty as both Mr. D and Grover Underwood.  He also looks much closer to how Grover is supposed to look than the regrettable movie version.  Occasionally, his Mr. D voice slips through on a couple of Grover's singing bits, but on the whole, he does a really good job.  I do find it a bit amusing that Grover and Mr. D share an actor, since in the books, Grover is scared of Dionysus.  James Hayden Rodriguez really made Luke Castellan come across as believable and sympathetic before the big reveal.  I also really liked his performance as Ares which, based on what I listened to, seemed to have a sort of punk rocker vibe to it.  It's another great example of double casting, given the connection Luke and Ares have.

Jonathan Raviv provides an interesting example of double casting as well.  He plays Chiron and Poseidon; meaning he plays both Percy's surrogate father and his actual father.  This adds a certain extra dimension to all of the scenes with Percy and Chiron interacting.  And yes, Jonathan is of South Asian ancestry, but he absolutely nailed Chiron's personality and character.  I liked how he spoke with a kind of upper class Transatlantic-ish accent.  Not quite American, but not quite British either.  

Out of all the actors, Carrie Compere had the most role to juggle.  She played Mrs. Jackson, The Oracle of Delphi, Silena Beauregard and Charon.  For reference, Charon is the ferryman who brought to souls of the dead to the underworld.  If you were thinking of the centaur trainer of heroes, that would be Chiron.  As stated above, she absolutely owned every song that she was in.  Finally, we have Sarah Beth Pfeifer who played Clarisse, Mrs. Dodds and Katie Gardner.  She has absolutely amazing vocal range and really managed to differentiate her characters.  She might have only had one song where she was the main singer, but it was a pretty damn effective song. 

So, suffice it to say, I loved all of the actors in this production.  They all clicked really well together, and none of them felt miscast nor out of place.  As an aside, wouldn't it be awesome if they all got together and recorded a special edition of The Lightning Thief audiobook?  Maybe they could get some other actors to play the character who didn't appear in the musical, and maybe a bit of music and sound effects.  Ah, but I'm getting carried away here, let's get things back on track.  

If I did have one regret, it's that I never got to actually see the musical.  It would have been nice to actually see everything, and to hear the non-musical bits of the production.  It would make it easier to know who played certain other characters, such as Zeus and Hades, or how they handled scenes like Chiron reveling his true centaur form.  Alas, I must make due with still images and bootlegged footage.  If ever I do manage to catch a show, it will of course be without the original cast.  That would be a bit sad, but still better than not seeing the musical at all.  

Now then, what about people who have never read the books?  If you were to see a performance of the musical, you'd have all the information you'd need.  If you were to only listen to the album?  Yeah, you'd have quite a few gaps in your knowledge/understanding.  I mean, you'd probably get the general gist of it all, but still be scratching your head wondering what happened between the songs.  I'd recommend at least reading the first book in the series; like the musical, it's called The Lightning Thief.  You'll miss out on one or two nods to the later books, but overall you'll be much better prepared than if you went in without and prior knowledge.  At this point, I'm sure I don't need to emphasize what a bad idea it would be to use the movies as a reference.  

The last line of "Bring on the Monsters" sounds a bit like a sequel hook, but the directors have confirmed that it wasn't necessarily meant to be.  I'd love to see what they could do with the other books in the series, but if nothing else, at least we've got this wonderful musical.  Don't get your hopes up too high for a sequel, but at the same time, don't totally dismiss the possibility either.

So there you have it.  The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical is an adaptation worthy of the gods themselves.  It retains the heart and soul of the books while also finding its own voice.  This could finally be an opportunity for the Percy Jackson franchise to have its day in the sun.  On behalf of all Percy Jackson fans, and from the bottom of my heart, I want to extend a warm and enthusiastic thanks to all of the actors and writers involved in the production.  You helped bring our favorite series to life, and the world is a brighter place because of your hard work.  

I had a really good time reviewing this album/musical.  In fact, I think I just might do a retrospect on Percy Jackson and the Olympians, as well as its sequel series and spin-off series.  Hmm, yes, I think I will get started on that.  

Well, I think that's enough from me for now.  I will see you guys next time.  

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