By Aharon Nissel
In lieu of a traditional review of The Lightning Thief musical that just opened on Broadway, this will be a piece about the much-discussed New York Times’ review of the show by Jesse Green, and theater criticism in general. I will probably say something that bothers you. That’s okay. Please feel free to comment! In so many ways, theater works best because of dialogue.
I saw the show on a Thursday night during its preview weeks. I thoroughly enjoyed the adaptation of a book series I fondly remember. The friend I was with didn’t like it. Another person I knew in the audience left during intermission. As always, everyone is entitled to their own opinions. But Jesse Green’s review in the Times was pretty harsh.
Green’s review makes some excellent points. On the technical aspects, the show leaves much to be desired. The acting was eh, the soundtrack was pretty good but also repetitive and simple. A show that should’ve wowed with legendary special effects failed to deliver. And yes, the toilet paper gag was underwhelming. The entire second half was extremely rushed which made it hard to follow and digest. Plot points that were full chapters in the book are stuffed into one-liners that really don’t make sense if you haven’t read the book (Which Green seemingly didn’t). In my own opinion, the only technical aspect where it succeeded was the lighting.
But here’s where I differ from Green: I know how to look past all that. Behind all the technical aspects, the cast gave a stellar performance. It was hysterical.
And no it’s not really because of the acting, nor because of the written jokes (many fall flat anyway), it’s because the cast was just so charming and genuine. Chris McCarrell – who plays Percy – specifically stands out in this regard, but really the entire cast was excellent.
The staging was simple, low-budget, and at times ridiculous! Amazing! I loved it. Anyone who did high school theater can relate to a single set-piece being used a million different times. The simplicity, or perhaps stupidity, of the whole thing, was what made it charming.
The whole production was a tribute to low-brow, low-budget theater. Theater for people who just want to go out for a night and enjoy a fun, charismatic production. I think Jesse Green sorely missed that. I read a fair amount of theater reviews, and the vast majority of them are as pretentious as anything. Green’s Lightning Thief review is a stellar example of that. He has once again reduced theater criticism to a list of boxes, going through it to see what he can check off. If a play doesn’t get enough checks, it’s suddenly considered horrible. The issue is that his criteria aren’t indicative of everyone’s criteria. (I guess this is an obvious point. Green is a theater critic, it’s his job to write up his opinion of shows.)
But performances exist beyond those boxes, each performance has its unique properties that don’t fit into the boxes. For this show, it was fabulous charm and charismatic cast. It was creative recycling of set pieces and unique interpretations of the book’s characters. (And offstage there’s a passionate community of fans and an awesome Twitter account.)
This is I think a major flaw in the way critics review shows. Perhaps it is because they see so many that they can’t contemplate each one adequately. At one point in the article, Green takes off his “Scrooge glasses” in an attempt to see the show “as a family might.” But even when viewing it positively he makes sure to mention that tickets cost up to $199, rather than saying that they begin at $39, which is the actual price a family is more likely to pay per ticket. This is also problematic!
When he attempts to see the show as a family show he actually has some (read: maybe 3 at most) nice things to say about the production. But then he puts the glasses back on, leading us to what I found to be the most problematic part of the review. Green tries to figure out “what do we want musicals for young people and their families to be?” I’m unsure who he’s referring to when he says we; a more accurate word would be “I”, or perhaps he meant every pretentious boomer theater critic. (Looking at you Ben Brantley.) He suggests either “serious and urgent” a la Dear Evan Hansen, or “Moral tales sugared with spectacle like anything Disney.” Anything in between, he writes, he has trouble supporting. I find this to be deeply troubling. Musicals don’t always fit into neat categories. Not everything needs to conform to the mold you want it to be. And anyway, why does he get to decide what the entire genre of “kids and family” should or shouldn’t look like?
Let the artists create works. Let them create unique works that push boundaries. The boundary pushed in this show was how low-brow a broadway musical can go. I see this as a big positive.
Then Green writes, “Not only are they often about whiny teenagers; they seem to be written by them as well.” So now we’re discrediting all work by teenagers? For this show specifically, calling out teenagers as being whiny and unable to produce meaningful work is a low blow. Rather than knocking down young artists, you should be elevating their voices. Instead, you only support establishment artists. The top 1% of the 1%. (Side note, you know Big Pharma and Big Tobacco? Well Big Art exists too, and it sucks.) Saying that the work of adults is on the level of someone young epitomizes the boomer notion that young people are wrong about everything. Saying that anything young people create is stupid is a harmful ideology. Young people are often the only ones who have the audacity to go beyond the established traditions in the art and theater world to create unique and meaningful works. Their creativity should be praised by critics, even if the results aren’t always up to the critics’ taste.
Moving on, people are upset about the line that Percy, Annabeth, and their friends are presented as under-privileged when they are actually quite privileged. I am too. Firstly, they do have issues and they’re not especially privileged. They suffer from abusive parents, poverty, and learning and mental disabilities. Green obviously realizes this but was looking to criticize in any way he could, that the whole “god-parents” issues and having to face monsters business is metaphorical.
In conclusion. Jesse Green’s review kinda sucks, and highlights a lot of what’s wrong with the world of Baby Boomer theater reviews.
Okay, so that’s my take. Hopefully, it was somewhat coherent and maybe more nuanced than some other responses floating around online. Everything here is my own opinion and you are welcome, even encouraged, to disagree.