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Regional Reviews: Cincinnati

The Lightning Thief
Northern Kentucky University
Review by Scott Cain | Season Schedule

Also see Scott's review of Pippin

Je'Shawn Jackson, Alex Simpson, and Ellie O'Hara
Photo by Tammy Cassesa Photography
The musical theater program at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) is one that has continued to improve over the years. Their current production, The Lightning Thief, isn't the best show in terms of quality of the writing, but NKU provides a solid mounting featuring talented performers.

The Lightning Thief musical is based on a 2005 novel by the same name by Rick Riordan. It tells the tale of Percy Jackson, a young teenager who learns he is part human, part god. At a summer camp for demigods, he is sent on a quest to locate Zeus' missing lightning bolt and stop a war among the Greek gods. The show was presented Off-Broadway in 2014 and 2017 and in two national tours before a very brief 2019 run on Broadway.

The book for the musical by Joe Tracz is quick paced and full of action. However, it's also quite rushed, and several key plot points are glossed over or not explained at all. Some songs could have been axed to allow for more detailed and improved storytelling. The target audience for this show is teenagers, and there are a number of themes and humor directed at that demographic.

The songs by Rob Rokicki don't fare much better than the show's book. The rock-infused music is mostly undistinguished and somewhat derivative of other scores. The lyrics are stronger and of sound quality, though there are a few instances where opportunities for obvious rhymes were missed. The show's best songs are "The Day I Got Expelled," "My Grand Plan," and "Drive."

Maybe it's not fair to hold this show up to the quality standards of other Broadway musicals, but with that Broadway pedigree, it doesn't compare favorably.

With interesting characters such as monsters and gods, along with unique locales including Underworld, the show requires a lot of inventiveness to execute it well. At NKU, director Jamey Strawn does employ a variety of stagecraft creativity in telling the story. The blocking is very active and there are moments of campy fun which go over well. One wishes that the show would have been staged to take advantage of the camp factor even more so. Damon Stevens leads a fine-sounding five-piece band.

Alex Simpson does a great job portraying the young teenager with the appropriate level of confusion, angst, and slowly growing confidence, and he possesses a strong singing voice. Ellie O'Hara provides sharp acting and a piercing voice as Annabeth, and Je'Shawn Jackson provides worthwhile singing and dancing as Grover, along with praiseworthy comic relief. All of the other cast members get their moment to shine covering multiple roles, and the cast is vocally strong, with a few deserving of special mention: Zachary Farmer, Field Oldham, Arianna Catalano, and Ezra Crist.

Toa Wang's set design incorporates projections to good effect (though some of the actual projections could more clearly convey the setting), and includes several levels to allow for staging flexibility. The costumes by Ronnie Chamberlain are generally appropriate, with subtle touches to convey some of the godly attributes without being too obvious. The lighting by Jo Sanburg is skillfully prepared and executed.

While this isn't NKU's best musical production in recent memory, much of that may have to do with the material. There were many school groups in the audience at the performance I attended and they reacted enthusiastically to the piece. The talent level of the performers continues to be impressive, and I look forward to seeing what lies ahead for them and the program.

The Lightning Thief runs through March 6, 2022, at Northern Kentucky University, Corbett Theater, 100 Nunn Dr, 260 Fine Arts Center, Highland Heights KY. For tickets and information, call 859-572-5464 or visit