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First Stage’s ‘Percy Jackson Musical’ finds strength in numbers

Six actors carrying prop sword and shields circle each other on stage.
Paul Ruffolo
/
First Stage
(From left) Nadja Simmons, Callee Tamblingson, Annie Sturtz, Ben Nowacek, Austin Nelson Jr. and Sanaiah Hibbler in First Stage's production of "The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical."

“Write what you know.”

Classic advice to writers just starting out — whether it’s novels or short stories or songs or whatever. I was reminded of it while watching First Stage’s production of The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical during its opening weekend.

Throughout the show, a cast largely made up of individuals going through the changes and challenges of growing up told the story of individuals … going through the changes and challenges of growing up. In other words, to adjust that advice slightly: “Act what you know.”

If you haven’t seen the very popular show on Disney+ or the not-as-popular movies from a couple years back, the real quick version is that the tween/teen-aged main character discovers his unique parentage and certain abilities that come with it. This upends his life, which up to that point wasn’t really all that great anyway.

So, Harry Potter but with more swords.

The task of opening First Stage’s production last Saturday fell to the “Minotaur Cast,” with Ben Nowacek stepping into the central role. Although not the only example of the “act what you know” hook from earlier, he personified it best across the 75-minute runtime. The actor very much mirrored the character — both looking unsure and tentative in the opening moments before growing into the role they found themselves in.

From scene to scene, Nowacek seemed to draw strength from those around him (again, very much like Percy Jackson as the story progresses). Sanaiah Hibbler exhibited vulnerable strength as Annabeth, and her rendition of “My Grand Plan” was easily the musical high point. Thatcher Jacobs consistently delivered much-needed levity as the goat-legged satyr Grover, balancing the “oh no, the world’s ending” stakes.

Two young actors run through a sword-fighting lesson on stage with scaffolding behind them.
Paul Ruffolo
/
First Stage
Sanaiah Hibbler (left) and Ben Nowacek in First Stage's production of "The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical."

And, as is typical with First Stage’s productions, the adult cast members were rock solid in providing support to their less-seasoned counterparts. Special shout to Matt Daniels for not giving off even a whiff of self-consciousness while pretending to be half-horse for much of the show.

On balance, the music side of things didn’t quite keep pace with the more straight-forward acting, with Hibbler’s song a notable exception. Nowacek was given a tough task navigating the challenging numbers that Percy Jackson has to carry throughout the production, particularly with the vocal upheaval happening around this age (I’ve been there, Ben). But, overall, it’s a story well told — especially considering they did in 75 minutes what took Disney 320 minutes across eight episodes.

Speaking of the Mouse House’s streaming series, our 9-year-old critic — having watched the finale the night before we saw First Stage’s version — had a few thoughts upon leaving the Todd Wehr Theater:

I thought it was a really good and very interesting story. And compared with the show, I’d say it was particularly different — the details, there aren’t as much scenes, not explaining things as much. Like, only one minute or two of the Chimera, which was a very exciting part in the show.

I would say they’re really good for different reasons. The show is pretty good because it gives specific details, more Greek mythology, things that take longer and explaining all the myths. While this has music and lots of other fun stuff in it, too. Definitely go to this if you like music and Greek mythology and learning about history.

First Stage’s production of The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical runs through March 10, with performances Friday through Sunday each weekend. There’s a “Pay What You Choose” option at 7 p.m. this Friday, Feb. 9, a sensory-friendly performance Feb. 17 and a sign-language version March 3. Tickets for all the shows are available on the First Stage website.