The Review: Public Theater’s Soft Power and Broadway’s The Lightning Thief
The world of musicals in New York City is a wonderful hodgepodge of delight and creativity. It flies forward with abandonment, giving you all sorts of angles and visions into scenarios and personal stories of adventure and grand quests. One such grand quest opened on Broadway after a mediocre but successful run downtown and a National tour, and I had great hopes that they could have upped the ante filling out the beast and the mythology to match the Broadway stage. The other was a very small personal and political story playing downtown at the Public Theater that has eyes, I hear, on transferring to the Broadway stage. One is a complete utter failure, while the other is so meta-fantastic that I am sending it all the energy in the world to find its way.
I guess you can tell what shows I’m talking about from the title and picture headlining this duo review, and although they don’t feel like they belong in the same paragraph, , let alone the same review, they, The Lightning Thief and the Public Theater’s Soft Power. do only because they are polar opposites in more ways than one. One is thoughtfully created and enhanced with passion and precision, and the other….well, not so much.
Broadway’s The Lightning Thief could have been something magical. It has all the Harry Potter elements, but the producers and director Stephen Brackett (PH’s much better A Strange Loop) decided, for some unknown reason, to not do an upgrade like Be More Chill did when it bowed on Broadway, and that didn’t even help with its success. The Lightning Thief will probably get slayed rather more quickly than the stronger Chill, at least from what I could see when I went to see the show last Friday night at the Longacre Theatre. From the looks of the half-blood house, a closing notice should be arriving soon, and that gives me no level of satisfaction. Only sadness, because a closing is never a good thing. Love and energy gets put in to any show, and you can tell from this very game cast that they are determined at every stage of the game to give this crowd, small as it is, a good time. It’s just unfortunate that the creative team didn’t learn from their mistakes. Set designer Lee Savage (Primary Stage’s Rx) and costume designer Sydney Maresca (Broadway’s Hand to God) dug their heels in harder and more firmly than they should have been allowed, counting on the cluttered low tech production, underwhelming puppetry designs by Achesonwalsh Studios, and over the top jokie delivery to win the Broadway flag. But they were sadly mistaken.
So with a flash and a bang, this rock musical of Greek God mythology aspirations without the proportions roars in. It’s a blast-full beginning, full of feisty energy and excitement that made the young eager crowd scream with delight. Based on the best-selling novel by Rick Riordan (which also was made into a movie a few years ago), The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical loudly stomps forward the story of a young modern teenage boy on a quest of self-discovery. The show, as most of these do, centers on a misfit desperate to find his place in the world, curious about his heritage, and eager to discover his worth in the eyes of himself and his peers. Within the clunky book by Joe Tracz (Williamstown’s Poster Boy), the journey towards en-Lightning-ment is a typical high school outcast story layered with an action-packed Greek mythological story. For the most part, it’s innocent enough, although too many moments border on the ridiculous and silly. The story is told by a mostly determined cast performing a high voltage soundtrack, with music, lyrics, and orchestrations by Rob Rokicki (Ars Nova’s Strange Tails) lead by music director Wiley Deweese (Public’s Girl from the North Country) delivered with a much too loud wink and smirk. The teenage girls and prepubescent kids lapped up this over the top musical, fully leaning in with wide eyed glee, while the adults seemed to enjoy themselves well enough, but I can’t quite say I joined them. Maybe I needed my Hazel, my young theaterjunkie companion, to have that same level of fun (but I think she herself would see through the ham, and be wary of the cheese).
Percy Jackson, played with a big grinned boy band angst by Chris McCarrell (Les Miserables Broadway revival) has quite the unique voice. At times, he sings with a rock star greatness, while other times it hovers somewhere on the side of a thin and annoying whine, yet he commands the stage with his teenage discomfort coupled with an somewhat appealing blend of fun and energy. I think I recall liking him more when the show first played at the Lucille Lortel Theater in Greenwich Village. Back then, in the smaller house, we happily got on board with him and his crew as they venture out on a killer quest to try to stop an epic war between the Gods. But this go round on that bigger stage, it felt more forced and more hollow all at the same time. I don’t lay this on the young actor, but I think the director is pushing the ridiculousness of the show harder and stronger than before, as it seems to appeal to the younger audience members, but for this adult, it pushed me further away from the adventure, leading me to a place of resignment as he slowly learns that the weaknesses he once viewed as a burden, might actually be the clues to his strengths; a nod to positivity and embracing weirdness as not equating to weakness. To feel a sense of friendship and acceptance is what Percy longs for and finds he has with Grover, who off-Broadway was played by the always appealing George Salazar (tick, tick,…BOOM!), but now played by the serviceable Jorrel Javier (Barrington’s Fall Springs) and Annabeth, a wonderful perky but overdone Kristin Stokes (Two River’s The Ballad of Little Jo) at the ramshackle camp for half bloods.
The rest of the cast, including a very game but over directed Javier, play numerous other characters, monsters, gods, and mortals. All to various degrees of over-the-top abstractionism. Most characterizations are played primarily for laughs and the results are sloppy and juvenile, probably making the kids in the audience very happy. Javier’s portrayal of Mr. D, a frustrated God and camp counselor/administrator, as it was with Salazar, is turned up high and beyond, losing its possible hilariousness. Somewhere in that performance, and a number of the others, a real person would have been a great thing to see. The direction seems to swing wildly from extreme clowning to a mediocre attempt for something more sincere. While not all the over-acting rings false, it doesn’t always ring true either. Ryan Knowles (the We Will Rock You tour) as Chiron (and others) and James Hayden Rodriguez (Public’s The Visitor) as Luke (and others, namely his own hunky God father), are saddled with distracting physical characteristics (Chiron’s gait), broadly constructed characters, and ridiculously sophomoric choreography by Patrick McCollum, who did much better work in The Band’s Visit and Broadway’s Angels in America). The standout of the group, without a doubt, is the incredibly gifted Jalynn Steele (the Fosse tour) who lovingly balances playing Percy’s mother (the beautiful empowering song, ‘Strong‘), an Oracle (a campy fun piece of stage craft magic), and the elevator operator/guide into Hades (a marvelous, ‘D.O.A.‘), all with warmth, grace, humor, and a killer voice. She nearly steals the show every time she opens her mouth.
The overall themes of community and acceptance are wonderful to behold, and dished out with intent to this mostly young audience. The dysfunctional family of God and their half blood children finding community and salvation, without the hiding and the shame illustrates the inventiveness and power this story has entwined somewhere within its DNA. I just wish it came in a better styled package. There is a good show hidden amongst the scaffolding and low key production-level kitsch on stage, and although the teens didn’t seem to be bothered, it did not find its way on tour from pedestrian to God-like. All I can say in the end, is that The Lightning Thief is a really good High School musical production, that somehow snuck its way onto a Broadway stage, and it should probably head back on the road to high school auditoriums across the country.
That is definitely not the case with the engaging Soft Power at the Public. Taking root downtown on the main Martinson Theater stage, Tony Award winners David Henry Hwang (Broadway’s M. Butterfly, Yellow Face) and Jeanine Tesori (Broadway’s Fun Home; Caroline, or Change) have found glory and dimension together in their groundbreaking new musical-within-a-play that meta-mashes political commentary with the dreamy hallucinatory magic of every Broadway style musical you can imagine, all inside the direct exploration of racism and immigrant hate in modern day America. It’s both thoroughly exciting and freshly hypnotic, dissecting and interrogating America’s clashing of cultures before and just after the disastrous presidential election of 2016. Told through an East-West musical-blended lens conjured up inside the dream-like state of the energetic narrator and writer stand-in, DHH, lovingly portrayed by the endearing Francis Jue (Public’s Wild Goose Dreams), China’s point of view of America is on full display.
The themes all play out whimsically through the wonderfully detailed depiction of a Shanghai theater producer, Xüe Xíng – a part normally played by Conrad Ricamora (Broadway’s The King and I), but in the production I saw the other weekend, the role was most diligently portrayed by the wonderful Billy Bustamante (Public’s Here Lies Love) – who forges a powerful bond with an effervescent and dance-crazed Hillary Clinton, perfectly played by the incredibly talented Alyse Alan Louis (Broadway’s Amélie, Disaster!). She’s completely delicious and delightful in her dual fantasy/reality role, as the fever dream of Soft Power unfolds with knowing wise nods and salutes to almost every Broadway musical style you can imagine starting at Dreamgirls, through The Music Man, and landing somewhere close to Hamilton, courtesy of the fine orchestrations of Danny Troob (Hercules at the Delacorte) and the music supervision and music direction of Chris Fenwick (Broadway’s Once On This Island). “I’m with her“, is all I can say about this and Louis, as I watch, astounded and amazed, as they dance The King and I waltz underneath a sky filled with love and chandeliers. It’s just deliriously odd, ridiculous, and perfect.
The cast shines in the dual dimensional worlds, breathing life and liberty into fear and attack. One can’t help thinking that it’s a massive praise-worthy sublimation of Hwang’s, turning trauma into meaningful art, song, and dance, with a special acrobatic thanks to the magnificent choreography of Sam Pinkleton (Broadway’s Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812). Under the snappy direction of Leigh Silverman (Broadway’s The Lifespan of a Fact, Violet), Soft Power exhilaratingly sparkles with professionalism, thanks to the solid wonderful work of set designer Clint Ramos (Public’s White Noise), costuming by Anita Yavich (Broadway’s Fool for Love), lighting by Mark Barton (Public’s Hamlet), and sound by Kai Harada (Broadway’s Head Over Heels) that take us in and out of parallel universes with detailed ease. The whole unique world passes before our eyes when the attack on our collective morality presents itself, courtesy of the hate fostered by the #OrangeMonster (I still can’t bring myself to name him). From that kinda violence, we can’t even count on the wonderfully depicted Bobby Bob, beautifully played by Austin Ku (CSC’s Pacific Overtures) to save us, particularly against the prejudices that reside in the Randy Rays, diabolically well played by Raymond J. Lee (Broadway’s Groundhog Day), of the post-election American landscape. “I know, I know, I know“. Lay down my fear, and “smile more, Hillary“, and all should be okay in the end. But this kind of freedom within America can make life so hard to rectify and understand, even for those unaccented Americas we should all embrace.
It’s a big wild show, smart enough for The Public Theater, and maybe just big and wise enough for Broadway, or China. These are the shows, like Slave Play, that deserve the space uptown. The Lightning Thief should not have stuck with their mistake, but restructured itself if it was going to try. Soft Power, hopefully, has a brave enough hero that one can dream and hope. I believe, somehow, that this crazy meta-magnificent piece of musical theatre can find its place and survive on the Great (shouldn’t be so) White Way.