Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photo by Jeremy Daniel.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a super-bright girl, a funny, somewhat geeky boy, and a boy who did not know he had any powers (but does) embark on a quest to save the world. Yes, this could easily describe the Harry Potter series, and Rick Riordan’s popular Percy Jackson series follows that same formula, only this time set in a world where the magic comes not from wizards but from the Greek gods (who are not dead). The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical is the latest attempt to capture some of that lightning in a bottle. Now playing for one week only at the Oriental Theatre, this show should greatly satisfy fans of the book on which it is based, and it has enough fun moments and good music to appeal to non-fans as well. For all the fun and funny bits, though, the second act of the musical races through the story so quickly that you utterly forget that the fate of the world hangs in the balance.
The first act of the show introduces young Percy, a “good boy” who tries hard to fit in and succeed but who ultimately finds that he can’t. For reasons beyond his ken, he keeps getting expelled from schools. He has ADHD and dyslexia (which, we are informed, are signs that you might be a half-blood god), and he can’t concentrate on the school work. That, and weird things happen to him, like an attack on his life in a museum by a Fury.
Chris McCarrell plays Percy with honesty and sincerity. It’s easy enough to believe that he has suddenly found himself in a world he didn’t even know existed. And when he starts to be able to control water, it becomes clear that his missing father is Poseidon himself, the god of the sea (played here disarmingly by Ryan Knowles as a Hawaiian-shirt wearing “cool dude”). Knowles also plays other roles, including Chiron the centaur (his horse walk is hilarious) and Medusa. In fact, aside from McCarrell, each member of the small cast is called upon to play multiple roles. It’s all part of the campy fun.
And to its credit, Joe Tracz’s book is heavy on camp and silly jokes. Several special effects are done with household items like toilet paper, making great use of David Lander’s lighting design to make them work. There are also some great scary puppets, like the Minotaur and the Fury, who make Percy’s life difficult. And while Percy is at Camp Half-Blood figuring out his place in the world, meeting new friends (like Annabeth, the aforementioned brainy girl played by Kristin Stokes), and discovering that old friends, like his buddy Grover (Jorrel Javier) is actually a satyr, things progress nicely.
It’s the second act, in which Percy’s entire heroic quest occurs (he is sent to find out who stole Zeus’s lightning in order to avoid a war among the gods that could wreak havoc in the world of men), that doesn’t quite live up to expectations. In the book, this quest is patterned on Homer’s The Odyssey, and Percy and his friends find themselves in many mini-adventures much like Odysseus and his crew. Here, though there are certainly call-outs to the novel’s structure, the quest is so condensed that every part of it goes by way too quickly. The lone exception is the practically mandatory hero’s trip to the underworld, which features a kick-ass song by Rob Kokicki (whose powerful pop score is the show’s highlight) called “DOA” sung by the gifted Jalynn Steele. Here the heroes linger for awhile, increasing the dramatic tension that is just missing elsewhere in the act. Otherwise, for all that is at stake in their quest, and even though they are being chased by monsters, there just doesn’t seem to be much conflict. (Speaking of them, the finale, “Bring on the Monsters,” with its refrain of “Bring on the monsters, bring on the real world” is a pretty brilliant number equating the supernatural struggles onstage with the real world struggles of kids like Percy but whose dyslexia is not a sign of hidden divinity.)
This is a fun, often funny play, and if you don’t ask for more than that you will probably enjoy it. Personally, I wish Tracz had developed Act Two more so that the quest so carefully built up to in Act One had more tension. But director Stephen Brackett and the production’s designers (including some great sound design by Ryan Rumery) make the most of a light script and keep things enjoyable and entertaining. If you are one of the novel’s millions of young fans, you’re going to have a great time. But if you want depth of either character or storytelling, you’ll be disappointed (though Annabeth’s song “My Grand Plan” and Grover’s “Tree On the Hill” do slow us down enough to make more of these characters). Still, things just happen far too quickly to seem much more than random. And that does not make for great theatre, though it can make for a light, fun night.
The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical is now playing at Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph, Chicago until Jan 13. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.
Note for WCT: “theater” not “theatre,” capitalize “Black”; write out links and abbreviate date
Title: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Playwright: William Shakespeare
At: Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Navy Pier, Chicago
Runs through: January 27
BY KAREN TOPHAM
One of Shakespeare’s most endearing plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream tells the story of two worlds colliding: the rigid, imperial world of Athens in which a young woman (Hermia, played by Melisa Soledad Pereyra) can be put to death for disobeying her father’s word on a choice of husbands, and the wild, magical, unruly world of the fairy kingdom. The fairy realm is having problems: King Oberon (Edward O’Blenis) and Queen Titania (Alexandra Silber) are at odds, and this spills out into the real world as well, mixing up seasons and confusing mortals. (Global climate change here is the fault of the fairies, not the humans, a pleasant thought for those who still don’t want to believe in it.)
The confusion is not limited to the climate though. Hermia and her true love Lysander (Tyrone Phillips) take to the woods in an effort to escape the death her father Egeus (William Dick) has imposed on her for disobedience, and they are quickly followed by Helena (Cristina Panfilio) and the man she loves, Demetrius (Eric Schabla), who has dumped her for the prospect of marrying Hermia and is Egeus’s choice for his daughter. As if that’s not confusing enough, the four potential lovers are met in the forest by the mischievous fairy Puck (Sam Kebede) who, through magic, mixes up their affections, leading to much merriment for the fairies who stand invisibly watching the mess he has made.
Also in the woods is a group of amateur players Puck dubs “rude mechanicals,” led by “Grey’s Anatomy” star T.R.Knight as Bottom, a man with little talent but loads of confidence. They are in the woods practicing a play for the nuptials of Theseus and Hippolyta. In perfect symmetry with the rest of the play, they are performing a love story, albeit a tragic one: the story of Pyramus and Thisbe. However, they get caught up in fairy pranks when Puck replaces Bottom’s head with that of an ass (brilliant work by make-up artist Richard Jarvie) and sees to it that the Fairy Queen falls in love with him. Mischief managed, the stage is set for loads of fun as the various lovers play out their magic-induced roles.
Director Joe Dowling’s vision (at times aided by Joe Chvala’s brilliantly frenetic choreography) makes this Dream into one to remember. From flown-on fairy settings to the mechanicals’ crude efforts at creating a wall and moonshine (and a marvelous costume for Dick’s Lion), this is a play that renders fantasy visible. The tech side of things, as one would expect from Chicago Shakespeare, is perfect. Todd Rosenthal’s scenic design is outstanding. Several scene changes are completely surprising and wonderful, as the mystical forest looms just outside of rigid Athens. Fabio Toblini’s costumes are also great, especially those worn by the fairies, which contain wilderness echoes of the militaristic outfits of Athenian soldiers. Original music by Keith Thomas and outstanding sound design by Christopher M. LaPorte surround us in the fairy presence, and the lighting by Greg Hofmann and Jesse Klug is stunning.
It is never easy to tackle a show as well-known as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and make it yours, but Dowling and Chicago Shakespeare Theatre simply own this play and have since he directed it for the very first CST season on Navy Pier in 2000. 2018’s Dream is simply brilliant in every way, and audiences are going to love it.
Five Memorable Productions of 2018
By Karen Topham
It was a year of Frankenstein, with three different theatres paying homage to Mary Shelley’s classic work (with a fourth due in the spring). It was a year of diversity, in which more and more theatres made strides in color-blind and even gender-blind casting. It was a year that saw the shuttering of one of the leaders in that area, the groundbreaking American Theatre Company. It was a year in which several other companies moved into new homes, led by Theo Ubique’s brand-new theatre on Howard Street. And it was yet another year of tremendous variety in Chicago’s theatre world, which makes it particularly difficult to come up with a list of only five plays to label “the best.” If I wished, I could make a list of five plays using just musicals, as it was indeed a rich year and there were some truly outstanding ones. But Chicago’s straight theatre scene, from the big houses to the black boxes, presented some amazing fare in 2018, and choosing only five from among them would be a chore. Of course I didn’t see everything; no one could. But here are a few of the plays that I felt made this year one to celebrate:
Anna Ziegler’s small play, a fictionalized account of a famous case involving gender identity, was a complete gem. From the outstanding performance of its lead, Theo Germaine, to the brilliant set design by Arnel Sancianco, “Boy” was the best play of the year about trans issues without even having a trans character. (The titular “boy” was cisgender but raised as a girl after a botched circumcision left him with too little to work with.) Still, in the relationships that the play shows us: with his doctor, his parents, and a maybe girlfriend, we can see the pain and confusion of being brought up in the wrong gender. A January offering from Timeline, “Boy” still easily makes my top plays list.
The Light (New Colony Theatre)
In the wake of #metoo, this play about the persistence of American Rape Culture and its intrusion into the lives of an African-American couple couldn’t possibly have been more timely. But it is not for that reason that I am giving it a spot in my top five. It was the outstanding acting of Tiffany Oglesby and Jeffrey Owen Freelon, Jr. that made this one of the most moving and powerful dramas of 2018. The play, for which author Loy A. Webb received the Best New Play Jeff Award, takes us to the defining day of their relationship, when secrets are revealed that doom the joy Freelon’s character expects as he means to propose. Even more powerful because of the confines of its Den Theatre space, “The Light” was yet another January offering that still moves my memory almost a year later.
Ragtime (Marriott Theatre)
Another multiple-Jeff-winning production (four, including awards for ensemble, direction, and best musical) “Ragtime” was simply perfect. Scott Weinstein did things with the Marriott’s theatre-in-the square stage the I wouldn’t have thought possible, and the performances he managed to get from his actors (including Jeff-winning Katherine Thomas as Sarah) kept audiences riveted. I was thoroughly impressed from the opening number, when Weinstein managed to get his entire cast onstage in several varied and easily recognizable “locations” and still all visible to the audience. Another show from last winter, the memorable “Ragtime” earns a top five spot.
Sweeney Todd (Theo Ubique)
Last year, it was Paramount Theatre mounting a lavish production of this acclaimed Stephen Sondheim musical. This year, in a vastly different kind of production, Theo Ubique made it their own. With Philip Torre and Jacqueline Jones’ Jeff-winning performances and James Kolditz’s Jeff for his brilliant lighting design, this play has already been considerably honored, but truthfully it was director Fred Anzevino’s brilliant direction that made this play fit into the intimate space of the No Exit cafe, bringing it up close and personal with the audience. We’re still in the first quarter of the year, but “Sweeney Todd” takes the fourth spot in the top five.
Frankenstein (Manual Cinema at Court Theatre)
I mean, something from the last 75% of the year had to make the list, right? But what a production! We watch as the Manual Cinema company puts on a silent movie of Shelley’s novel right before our eyes using actors, cut-outs and puppets. You can watch the resulting film on a large screen, or you can focus on any of the equally compelling parts of its stagecraft: the actors rushing through their moments and readying for other scene, the musicians creating a brilliant and moody live soundtrack, the things that are happening, have just happened, or are getting ready to happen. The result is a complex visual treat that is easily one of the best shows of the year.