‘The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical’ echoes the struggles of COVID-19 and modern student life | Culture

Brandon McKinney’s triumphant words sparked a standing ovation from the nearly maskless, sold-out JMU Studio Theater crowd.

He sang to the crowd, “There’s gonna be a fight / There might still be a war / Right now we’ve got danger on the run.”

The closing song, “Bring On the Monsters,” marked the end of the first theatrical production to take place at the Forbes Center for the Performing Arts this semester. The doors opened to “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical,” the musical adaptation of Rick Riordan’s popular novel, from September 15-19.

Stratford Players, a student-run performance organization, mounted the production. Grace Altman, a young theater student who choreographed the show and starred as Katie Gardener and Medusa, said production proposals were voted on as a collective. One of the reasons Stratford Players chose “The Lightning Thief” is because of the theme of narrative unity – something Altman said has increased at JMU during COVID-19. The production has already faced the virus, having to mask, circumvent the disease and overcome other obstacles.

“[There’s a] sense of camaraderie and togetherness in the show,” Altman said. “Together is really big, and above all to get out of [the pandemic].”

This performance also marked the start of McKinney’s JMU theatrical career. The sophomore of musical theater said his enthusiasm was shared not only by the company, but by everyone involved. “It’s just like ‘back in action,'” he said.

“The Lightning Thief” is an energetic production, with a rock score by Rob Rokicki and a book by Joe Tracz. The musical debuted at Broadway’s Longacre Theater in 2019 and features a fast-paced retelling of the debut novel “Percy Jackson.”

Another reason the group chose the series was because “The Lightning Thief” was “our generation’s book,” Altman said.

Bridget Kimball, a freshman and computer science student, said “Percy Jackson” was her favorite book series. Like many college-aged people, Kimball said she started reading the series early in college.

COVID-19 continues

The toughest days of the pandemic appear to be over, however, the Shenandoah Valley continues to experience COVID-19.

According to the New York Times, as of September 21, Harrisonburg is reporting an average of 7 new cases of COVID-19 per day. Although cases appear low compared to past extremes, the effects of the virus are still noticeable on campus.

Altman referenced the safety precautions she has taken to limit exposure to COVID-19.

“I always wear a mask,” Altman said. The same could be said for many others involved with the musical, as other cast members were seen wearing masks during rehearsal.

In Stratford Players productions, the transition from proposal to performance is almost instantaneous. Rehearsals for “The Lightning Thief” began Aug. 15, and opening night was exactly a month later, leaving “a very small window” for people to potentially get sick, Altman said — and they did. ‘did.

Company-wide absences were common during preparation. McKinney and Lucas Mugica, who played Grover, had COVID-19 concurrently and were absent from rehearsals the same week.

“It’s stressful because sometimes it’s unavoidable,” Altman said, “especially if you live with people who aren’t necessarily on a show.”

The Stratford Players member also said there is little artists can do to guarantee the success of any collaborative production during a pandemic. Most actors kept their social circles small, Altman said, refraining from going out outside of rehearsals and classes to avoid exposure.

Proceed with caution

Great strides, both now and in the past, have been made to present a show of this capability without restrictions.

When the pandemic began at the end of the 2019-20 school year, productions were moved online to accommodate national restrictions. While screenings were possible on Zoom, productions were difficult to coordinate and achieve.

“It’s just not the best for student-made stuff,” Altman said. “A lot of things done by students here are great collaboration and together.”

Beginning with the fall 2021 musical, “Head Over Heels,” productions have taken the stage at Forbes’ Mainstage Theater with fewer COVID-19-related mandates. The first production for a full audience that did not require attendees to wear masks came later in the season with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Last spring, JMU’s production of the musical “Once” solidified the end of COVID-19 mandates for Forbes Center audiences.

Although the country as a whole is redefining public health restrictions, the “Percy Jackson” company has still made an effort to ensure that spectators watch with caution. When purchasing a ticket for a Forbes Center theater production, receipts will remind attendees to wear a mask. Altman, however, believes the real mandate may be out of reach for the company.

“We can’t say, ‘Wear your mask or you’re not allowed in’, but we can say, ‘Please, please, please, please. please, wear a mask,’” Altman said.

Although audiences ultimately decide whether or not to mask up, artists and crew members decided to do everything possible to ensure production would go ahead as planned, Altman said.

The big theme

Like the company’s battle against the pandemic, the show itself emphasizes empathy. As “half-bloods” — children of a mortal parent and a god or goddess parent, in the “Percy Jackson” franchise — from camp expel gifts for the gods into a flaming campfire, the characters bind to each other on shared struggles.

As desperation was commonly shared among college students during a global pandemic, McKinney said he was able to explore other motives and experiences of college-aged individuals. This reflection began once the protagonist received their script and found a connection with their character.

“When [Percy] goes for something, he doesn’t give up until he gets what he wants,” McKinney said. “I’m kind of the same. When I have a goal, I want to achieve it. »

For the character in the novel, finding a place to belong was constantly a feat to achieve. “Good Kid,” an aria performed by McKinney, displays a cry of acceptance.

“[Percy] doesn’t really feel like she belongs anywhere,” said Kimball, who said she felt a similar emotion when she arrived in Harrisonburg.

Throughout the show, the characters associate the feeling of being lost with the need to prove themselves and find their place in the world.

Carrigan Young’s (Annabeth Chase) solo “My Grand Plan” best exemplifies this need and the character’s desire for her efforts to be noticed by her mother, the goddess Athena, and the world.

“I’ll be brave / Wait and see,” Young sang.

Altman further agreed that the feeling of finding out who you are is strongly reflected in most of the play’s “half-blood” characters. While the “hero quests” may be different, she says, there is a sense of unity in a competitive atmosphere.

“It’s like working together to get ahead, which often happens in school,” Altman said. “We are surrounded by people who want the same thing as us.”

In his first JMU theatrical experience, McKinney said, he realized how each member of the group collectively contributes to the overall production.

“We have such a good culture here of working together, especially at Forbes,” McKinney said. “The theater building, the dance and the music – we all work so much together.”

The community was the Stratford Players’ ultimate driving force in the fight against viruses, and before the lights went out on the Studio stage, the cast banded together to declare victory for the moment: “Bring on the monsters / Bring on the real world”. they sang.

“Monsters are in the real world too, so no matter where you go, you can’t always be scared,” Altman said. “You just have to buckle up and face it.”

Contact Evan Moody at [email protected] To learn more about the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the Culture Bureau on Twitter and Instagram @Breeze_Culture.

Robert M. Larson