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Theatre in Review: The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical/In & Of Itself

Top: Chris McCarrell. Photo: Jeremy Daniels. Bottom: Derek DelGaudio. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

Two new Off Broadway productions have magic on their minds. If the title of The Lightning Thief doesn't mean anything to you, then you aren't up-to-date on the YA novel scene. So, let me introduce you to Percy Jackson, teenage screw-up, who suffers from ADD, dyslexia, and all-around attitude problems. He has been expelled from multiple schools, and, as The Lightning Thief, now playing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, begins, he is about to be chucked again. But Percy is not your ordinary troubled teen. He discovers that he is a "half-blood": His mother is human and his father is one of the Greek gods. As the musical's cheeky opening number states, "Yeah, the gods are real/And they have kids/And those kids have issues! Issues!"

Adapted from the first in Rick Riordan's series of novels, Joe Tracz follows Percy's progress as his life of crushing adolescent failure gives way to a series of death-defying adventures involving an exploding bus, an encounter with Medusa, and a stopover in the underworld that nearly turns into a permanent stay. The boy learns about his dual nature when a class trip to a museum turns deadly: A substitute teacher is turned into a winged monster bent on Percy's destruction. A sword magically appears in his hand, allowing him to dispatch her, but, clearly, his mother has been holding back a few key details of the family's past.

Soon, Percy is staying at Camp Half-Blood, where all the half-god, half-human children convene, learning to develop their powers in a safe space where they can freely complain about the parents they don't know. He is sent on a quest to clear the name of his father -- Poseidon -- from charges of having stolen lightning from Zeus. (Actually, Poseidon was framed, as part of a plot to stir up trouble in Olympus; I won't name the real malefactor, but, boy, is he mad.) Joined by his best friend, Grover, a satyr, and the fetching Annabeth, a daughter of Athena, Percy embarks on a cross-country tour filled with peril.

These improbable doings are delivered with plenty of brio thanks to Tracz's wisecracking, incident-rich script and the energized music and lyrics by Rob Rokicki. The appeal of the Percy Jackson stories would appear to lie in their depiction of gifted kids struggling to survive in a mysterious, often hostile world populated by absent and/or erratic authority figures. Among the shocking revelations thrown Percy's way is Annabeth's assertion that "Medusa dated your dad." Talk about trigger warnings!

Anyway, under Stephen Brackett's buoyant staging, aided by Patrick McCollum's caffeinated choreography, Percy's saga makes a smooth transition to the stage, based on the cheers of the middle-schoolers who filled the Lortel at the performance I attended. As Percy, Chris McCarrell, late of the recent Broadway revival of Les Misérables, is an attractively gawky hero, whether fighting off various supernatural villains or baring his soul in a furious lament titled "Good Kid." Kristin Stokes has the right combination of sass and spunk as Annabeth, who knows the score on Olympus far better than Percy. George Salazar pulls off a neat double act as Grover, he of the hairy legs, and as Mr. D (for Dionysus), the old crab who complainingly runs Camp Half-Blood. Carrie Compere scores both as Percy's concerned mother and as Charon, armed with a skimpy gold-spangled dress and plenty of soul-sister attitude, turning up the temperature in Hades with the Motown-inspired "DOA."

Lee Savage's ingenious set design places a moving scaffold -- which stands in for buses and trains, among other things -- againt a trio of Doric columns, all of which have been spray-painted with graffiti. David Lander's lighting includes subtle washes, floods of supersaturated color, and vertical strips of LED tape that, when turned on, create a shimmering effect, like illuminated synapses. Sydney Maresca's costumes range from typical teen casual wear to imaginative depictions of various gods and monsters. Ryan Rumery's sound design is on the loud side, but the lyrics remain generally intelligible; he also provides some pretty startling bursts of thunder. The Lightning Thief is not intended for couples seeking a Mom and Dad's night out, but you can take the kids and feel fairly certain that you'll have a good time, too.

Indeed, the adults might prefer to visit the Daryl Roth Theatre for In & Of Itself, a new entertainment for which the term "magic show" seems entirely inadequate. On a continuum that begins with the intimate, sophisticated foolery of Ricky Jay and ends with the glitzy, Vegas-inspired excess of The Illusionists, the magician Derek DelGaudio doesn't even register, so singular is his act. Instead of the usual circuit of clubs, casinos, and TV gigs, he has honed his art at Art Basel in Miami and The Kitchen in New York, creating a show with a surprisingly soulful quality. At first glance, he looks less like a master of the deceptive arts than like an accountant who has shown up to check the books in the box office. And, rather than immediately getting down to the business of dazzlement, he tells a rather long, rambling story, learned during a visit to Spain, about a professional player of Russian roulette. (Mysteriously, the storyteller termed DelGaudio "a rouletista," a revelation that certainly sets a distinctively creepy tone.) He also provides a number of personal details, among other things recalling a difficult, socially isolated adolescence during which he was ostracized because his mother was a lesbian.

You could easily be forgiven for wondering, during the first thirty minutes of In & Of Itself, exactly where all of this is headed. Gradually, however, DelGaudio gets down to business, taking his place at an onstage table and working a series of breathtaking sleight-of-hand card routines; an overhead video camera affords a close-up view of the action. There's a trick with a brick and a house of cards that deservedly earned the gasps that it evoked from the audience. He also pulls off slyer gags, such as removing letters, one by one, from a pigeonhole messagebox, until the remaining envelopes form the outline of the elephant that he has been telling us about.

From there, DelGaudio takes on bigger challenges; the elephant gag leads directly to a piece of business involving a randomly chosen audience member and a letter of apparent personal importance that is either one of the greatest illusions ever or a complete snow job involving an audience plant. It may be a calcuated setup for another, much more ambitious vignette, which involves DelGaudio revealing things about audience members that he couldn't possibly know. Is there some astonishing technical trick involved, or is a case of mass collaboration, almost like Stockholm syndromes, in which a couple of dozen audiencer members, caught up in the spirit of the evening, go along for the ride, choosing not to contradict the star?

That's a stretch, I know, but so are these illusions, and one is hard-pressed to come up with a better explanation. In any case, Frank Oz directs with assurance, if one assumes that the show's slow warmup is part of a deliberate plan; he certainly manages to establish a notably contemplative mood. The production design, by members of the performance-art collective A. Bandit, casts a spell of its own: It features a large upstage wall with six windows, variously containing a robot, the postal slots, a bottle of liquor resting on a pedestal, a broken window with a brick stuck in it, and a mounted wolf's head. Each of them figures in part of the show, and they all play a part in the final, and most astonishing, illusion, which I'm not going to describe. Adam Blumenthal's lighting is totally solid, as is Kevin Heard's sound design, which provides reinforcement for the faintly eerie music of Mark Mothersbaugh.

A strange hybrid of magic and performance, In & Of Itself left me somewhere between bewitched and bemused. If you're a magic fan, however, you'd probably do well to give it a go. I think I can guarantee it's unlike anything you've seen before. -- David Barbour

(14 April 2017)

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