By Christopher Caggiano
Two new musicals aimed at young audiences: One sings, the other yowls.
The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical, book by Joe Tracz, music and lyrics by Rob Rokicki. Directed by Stephen Brackett, Choreography by Patrick McCollum, The TheaterWorksUSA production presented by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Avenue of the Arts / Huntington Avenue Theatre, Boston, MA, through July 28.
Because of Winn Dixie, based on the novel by Kate DiCamillo, book and lyrics by Nell Benjamin, music by Duncan Sheik. Directed by John Rando. At the Goodspeed Opera House, 6 Main Street, East Haddam, CT, through September 5.
If the most expertly trained dog you’ve ever seen on stage made for quality musical theater, Because of Winn Dixie would be a masterpiece. Animal trainer William Berloni works wonders with Bowdie, the adorable poodle-mix rescue who stars as the titular Winn Dixie (so named because he is discovered and adopted in a branch of that supermarket chain). Bowdie inhabits the stage with more confidence than many human performers I’ve seen over the years.
Alas, the musical surrounding Bowdie is not so well-behaved. Because of Winn Dixie, playing at the Goodspeed Opera House, features a book and lyrics by Nell Benjamin (Legally Blonde, Sarah Plain and Tall) and music by Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening, American Psycho).
The story takes place in a small, depressed community somewhere in Florida, and centers around a preacher and his daughter who move to town and adopt a stray dog. The dog then proceeds — at least on paper — to bring the town together and change everyone’s lives for the better. However, this transformation is mostly announced rather than shown, a classic dramaturgical mistake in developing musicals.
Composer Duncan Sheik has had quite a busy season, with the Off-Broadway musicals Alice by Heart and The Secret Life of Bees, both of which received decidedly mixed reviews, and now Winn Dixie. Perhaps he should slow down and get one of them right.
To be fair, Sheik’s scores for Alice and Bees had bit more life to them than his score for Winn Dixie, which feels like one extended threnodic drone. Most of the melodies feature dull chromatic runs up and down within the same fifth interval. Perhaps Sheik should explore a diatonic scale or some consonant intervals. What’s more, the songs, to Benjamin’s lyrics, too often come off as internal “how I’m feeling right now” situations, versus furthering the story or fostering character interaction.
Because of Winn Dixie, adapted from the novel of the same name by Kate DiCamillo, clearly wants to be a heartwarming tale of love and redemption, but the individuals in the story never quite cross over from characters to real people. The central relationship between the preacher and his daughter is shrill and off-putting, showing the tension between the characters but little of the underlying affection.
Plot details in Winn Dixie don’t so much develop as snap into place without warning. Characters who are introduced as outcasts suddenly become pillars of the community. Strained relationships covering over dark secrets are seemingly resolved with short revelatory speeches. Part of the problem is that there are too many people in the story to keep track of, and not enough development of any of them.
Because of Winn Dixie is still a musical in development, and with the brand-name staff attached, clearly has Broadway in its sights. If the team could replace about 80% of the score with songs that are bit more pleasant and interesting to listen to, cut maybe 50% of the characters, and provide more development to the ones that remain, they might have the start of something.
If the creators of Winn Dixie want to see what an engaging musical aimed at the youth market looks like, they might want to check out the national tour of The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical, now playing at Boston’s Huntington Theater. The Lightning Thief is everything Winn Dixie isn’t (at least not yet): infectious, tuneful, and a heck of a lot of fun.
Adapted from the novel of the same name by Rick Riordan, The Lightning Thief features an efficient libretto by Joe Tracz (Be More Chill) and rollicking songs by Rob Rokicki (Love NY). The story concerns the half-blood children of the gods of Greek mythology, in particular one Percy Jackson, and the quest he embarks upon, upon learning of his deific lineage.
Rokicki’s songs are of the hard-driving rock variety, but are nonetheless tuneful, and possessing of a familiar musical theater form and feel. His lyrics are clever, if perhaps a bit too dense at times to fully comprehend at a first listen.
Joe Tracz’s book is zippy and efficient, and even musters some social commentary, as when a female character laments, “When boys screw up, they always get a second chance.” There are some ridiculous or unexplained plot points, as when a squirrel manages to dredge up three Amtrak tickets, but for some reason they only get the characters as far as St. Louis.
There’s also a stabbing during the show’s climax that is conveniently forgotten about. And there’s a bit of a bait-and-switch regarding Percy’s friend who eventually betrays him, as predicted by the Oracle of Delphi. The faithless friend is established as far too sympathetic to Percy for the transition to be truly believable. But overall, the story has a satisfying dramatic shape to it.
Director Stephen Brackett provides some slick staging, moving the action swiftly from one scene to the next. There’s some really impressive — albeit intentionally janky — stagecraft, and a genuinely imaginative use of toilet paper and hair dryers to represent the sea. (Seriously.) Lee Savage’s stage design features the simple but clever use of colored LED strips to evoke settings as varied as the ocean, the open road, and even the pits of hell.
The cast of Lightning Thief is strong overall, particularly the appealing Chris McCarrell as Percy. McCarrell possesses a strong pop singing voice, but also projects admirable intensity and genuine likability. The most impressive ensemble member is undoubtedly Ryan Knowles as Chiron and other parts. The protean Knowles expertly steals almost every scene he’s in, with sharp characterizations, expert physical comedy, and a comically deep speaking voice.
So, if you’re looking for a show to engage the young ones, The Lightning Thief is likely your better bet. Because of Winn Dixie is going to need a whole lot of work before it’s ready for general consumption.
Christopher Caggiano is a writer and teacher based in Boston. He serves as Associate Professor of Theater at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee. His writing has appeared in American Theatre and Dramatics magazines, and on TheaterMania.com and ZEALnyc.com.