Above Photo and Playbill Image By Gail. All Other Performance Photos By Jeremy Daniel.
You just can’t keep a good thing down. Nine years after it debuted as a major motion picture, The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical – based on the New York Times best-selling book, The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, is back with a national theater run. The two-act rock musical, written by Rob Rokicki and Joe Tracz (Be More Chill), first played in NYC in 2017 for a short run. Due to the show’s popularity, fans of the book series demanded that the play be available to a larger audience, and a National Tour was launched in January. This past week, the tour made a four-day stop at NYC’s Beacon Theatre, and I was able to check it out.
Fans of the book, and those who have seen the 2010 movie adaptation, already know how things play out, but for the sake of avoiding too many big spoilers for those who are coming into the story fresh, I’ll give you a Reader’s Digest Condensed version of the plot. Percy Jackson (Chris McCarrell) is a teenager from Long Island, NY who struggles with ADD and Dyslexia, has a knack for unwittingly causing drama at school, and can’t figure out why he feels like such a misfit among his peers (“The Day I Got Expelled”).
Percy (Chris McCarrell) is Comforted by his Mom, Sally (Jalynn Steele)
Percy’s mom, Sally (Jalynn Steele), who has raised him mostly on her own, has a pretty good idea of what the issue might be, and it has a lot to do with who Percy’s father is. Unwilling to directly address the identity of her son’s progenitor, she encourages Percy to embrace his unique attributes (“Strong”), reminds him that “normal is a myth,” and signs him up to attend a special summer camp, which turns out to be Camp Half-Blood. Arriving at camp, Percy discovers that the one trait he shares with his fellow campers is that they’re all demigods – kids with one mortal parent and one parent who is a Greek god (“The Campfire Song”). That’s right; it’s heavy.
Annabeth (Kristin Stokes), Percy and Grover (Jorrel Javier) Begin The Quest!
Requesting a sign from the Universe to reveal his divine parent, Percy discovers that his dad is not just some dude his mom hooked-up with on the beach, but Poseidon, god of the sea. While act one serves to set Percy up with his de rigueur epic quest (“Killer Quest”), the real action takes place in act two. Our hero is told that he must retrieve Zeus’s lightning bolt – which Percy himself is suspected of having stolen – in order to prevent a war among the Greek gods. Percy and his two close friends – Grover (Jorrel Javier), a satyr who is the son of Pan, and Annabeth (Kristin Stokes) daughter of Athena – set out on a cross-country journey (“Lost”), during which the trio must battle a variety of monsters on their quest to discover who the real Lightning Thief is. Eventually, they arrive at The Underworld, which just happens to be located in Los Angeles – appropriate! To find out how the showdown goes down, you will have to see the play for yourself!
As a testament to the degree of talent in the cast, each actor — except for Chris McCarrell, because he is in every scene — handles two or more roles in the play. On the technical front, this production of The Lightning Thief is creatively staged, making clever use of its minimal sets and lighting. Particularly visually impressive is a backdrop of programmed strip-lights used to recreate various environments, from the dripping walls of a damp cave, to the flames of lapping fire that fill The Underworld. Resourceful use of props to create fun special effects include using unspooled rolls of toilet paper and a leaf blower to simulate storms, which also elicits big laughs from kids in the audience. The show is also performed with the added energy of a live band, for a real Rock & Roll feel!
Ryan Knowles as Medusa
The Lightning Thief’s mythical theme lends the play a crossover appeal for fans of Harry Potter, and it’s a great companion piece to young adult-focused musicals with storylines more grounded in reality, such as Dear Evan Hansen and the off-Broadway production, Out Of My Comfort Zone. The Lightning Thief also offers a terrific crash course in Greek mythology (Percy is actually short for Perseus), which is always fascinating. Ultimately, The Lighting Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical conveys a strong message of claiming one’s own destiny. Even if, as the lyrics to “Campfire Song” suggest, “Things couldn’t be worse, when your parents run the universe,” the sins of the father are not necessarily to be laid upon the children. It’s possible to transcend the circumstances you were born into, no matter what “monsters” you may face.
Luke (James Hayden Rodriguez) and Percy Do Battle!
As an aside, I feel compelled to include information about a fan-driven campaign currently taking place on Twitter. When the show kicked off in Chicago this past January, there was great excitement created via social media. Fans were thrilled that the show was going to be seen by so many but, sadly, not everyone has the means to afford a ticket. A group of loyal fans stepped up and created #HalfbloodsHelpingHalfBloods, a campaign which has so far raised over $2000 to help dozens of Percy Jackson fans, who otherwise would not have the opportunity, to attend a performance. Here’s how it works: first sign onto Twitter. If you’re a fan (a ‘half-blood‘) in need of a ticket, tweet the city/date for which you need a ticket using the hashtag #HalfbloodsHelpingHalfbloods. If you’re a fan who can sponsor a ticket, reply to a tweet under the hashtag and pair up! This heartwarming grassroots effort speaks volumes about The Lightning Thief and its community of devoted fans.
Upcoming stops for The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical include cities in North Carolina, California, Louisiana, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Texas, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Georgia and Florida, with performances scheduled through Mid-July. This play is suitable for all ages, and has a two-hour runtime, including a 15 minute intermission. Visit Lighting Thief The Musical to learn more about the show and purchase tickets at a theater in your area!
The The Onstage at NYC’s Beacon Theater (All Photos By Gail)
Nostalgia doesn’t have to look a certain way. My first memory of nostalgia as a movement, or social phenomena, is from the 1980s, when the States experienced a massive wave of sentimentality for the pop culture of the 1950s. Suddenly, modern trends were pushed aside as the populace indulged a compulsion to revisit and appropriate the music, fashion and lifestyle of that era. It seemed like a big deal at the time, but as I get older I understand that the experience of nostalgia need not take place on such a grand scale. It can be drilled-down to keenly personal moments: a favorite scent, a photograph, or even a song can carry with it the power of full transportation to the past.
Nostalgia for ‘80s New Wave and Post-Punk Rock is big among many friends my age — especially those I met when we were all doing college radio together — because, when those songs were brand new, our immersion in the music scene was inseparable from the way we were living our lives. Music. Was. Everything. When I think about what my life was like in 1983, the year I graduated from college and was facing a litany of consequential life decisions, Soul Mining by the English band The The is the album that soundtracks those memories. I was 22 years old, and so was Matt Johnson, the singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and essential brain trust of The The.
Soul Mining CD Cover Signed By Matt Johnson
Comprised of eight all-killer-no-filler tracks, Soul Mining is a lyrically existential, aurally cinematic album that I would describe as a well-oiled juggernaut of emotional and sensory catharsis. While it can be interpreted as a loose concept album, two songs have always, for me at least, stood out from the pack. “This Is The Day” — arguably The The’s most famous song — employs Dylanesqe word economy as the song’s narrator welcomes a hard-reboot of a life looked-back-on with expansive disappointment. With its sublime wistfulness, “This Is The Day” manages to be both melancholy and inspiring simultaneously. It is also the only pop song I can name on which the lead instrument is the accordion. And then there’s “Uncertain Smile,” a song about an unrequited love affair whose pensive lyrics read like the bedsit rumination of a middle-aged loser, despite the fact that Matt Johnson wrote the song when he was just 19 years old. Those two songs are like a time machine for me: when I hear them, I can recall and visualize full chapters of my youth whose details would otherwise be unavailable to me. The power of music.
I admit I hadn’t listened to Soul Mining in (easily) twenty years when I got an email at the end of August announcing that Matt Johnson had put together a new line up of The The, and was embarking on a tour called The Comeback Special. The tour would coincide with screenings, in every US city on the itinerary, of an enigmatically-titled new documentary film, The Inertia Variations, of which Johnson is the subject. Somehow, I managed to score tickets to both events. The rest of this post is about the film, which I saw on a Saturday, and the concert, which I attended the following Monday.
The Inertia Variations Movie Poster Photographed Outside of Theatre 80 in NYC
The Inertia Variations is not so much a documentary about The The’s music as it is an intimate expose — with a distinct home movie-vibe — of Matt Johnson and his 16-year hiatus from writing pop songs, recording new The The material, and touring. What was he doing all that time? You are about to find out. Filmmaker Johanna St. Michaels is Johnson’s ex-girlfriend, and the two have a now-grown son together. While freely admitting that they were pretty dysfunctional as a romantic couple, they have obviously become very close friends and behave like brother and sister around each other. The nature of their friendship was no doubt a huge factor in the finished film being not only quite candid and personal, but also full of warmth and humor, and absolutely rampant with moments of nostalgia-inducing heaviness.
Though the documentary, by nature, is unscripted, Johnson provides an inner-monologue voice-over throughout, which is culled from a book of poetry that gives the film its name, The Inertia Variations, in which poet John Tottenham muses on themes such as regret, procrastination and failure. That Johnson can add “gifted actor” to his laundry list of talents is apparent, as he makes Tottenham’s prose resonate as if the words were his own most confessional thoughts.
Much of the film’s central action involves a 12-hour live radio show — broadcast from Radio Cineola, a station based in Johnson’s home — which takes place during the most recent British election cycle. Johnson is clearly passionate about geopolitics and his desire to inform people about political events in a way that isn’t done on the news has become his prime motivator. Following a kind of live marathon format, the broadcast includes assorted musical guests performing live, and Matt taking calls from fans who have dialed-in from around the globe. It is really quite engaging.
What everyone really wants to know, of course, is when will he resurrect The The and make more music? Johnson admits he has no idea, because while he has been very successful writing music for films, as he has not been able to complete the lyrics to a pop song in over 12 years! His inertia is the symptom of a ridiculously prolonged battle with writer’s block: the muse for writing pop songs has utterly deserted him. Even more surprising, Matt reveals that he has not even sung a pop song in over a decade.
The Inertia Variations is also about familial relationships, death, loss and grief. Johnson opens up at length about the death of his younger brother, Eugene, who passed unexpectedly in 1989 (it is never revealed how) at the age of 24. Eugene’s premature death inspired the song “Love is Stronger Than Death,” but Johnson’s grieving process also stunted the momentum of the band. Ten years on, his mother, who Johnson admits never fully recovered from Eugene’s death, passes away. Her death coincides with the writing and recording of the final The The album, NakedSelf, released in 2000.
Johnson’s eldest son, his father, and one of his two surviving brothers, artist Andrew Johnson (who designed album covers for The The, among other bands) also appear in the film. Andrew and Matt are shown in the process of collaborating on a book, which will include Andrew’s illustrations. Tragically, Andrew is diagnosed with brain cancer and dies, during the making of the film, in January of 2016. It is Andrew’s death that provides the catalyst for Matt to finally pen lyrics, inspired by and dedicted to his brother’s memory, and set them to music, for a song he titles “You Can’t Stop What’s Coming.” If that title isn’t golden, I don’t know what is.
At the film’s end, there isn’t a dry eye in the room as Johnson performs the song (marking his first public performance in 15 years), in his home studio for family and friends. “You Can’t Stop What’s Coming” is as amazing a song as any classic in The The discography, and Johnson’s voice sounds like no time has passed at all since he was in peak performance mode. The Inertia Variations is a remarkable work of filmmaking, giving the artist personal closure, while also providing a platform from which to launch the next chapter in his life, which is the Comeback Special Tour. The Inertia Variations should be available for home streaming at some point in the near future. (You can get a sneak peak by watching the trailer at the end of this post!)
The New York screening was followed by a Q&A with Johnson, St. Michaels and musician James Eller, who is the bassist and musical director for The The’s current line-up. This session was lots of fun, as the relatively intimate gathering included many diehard fans whose lives have been profoundly affected by Matt Johnson’s music. Some audience members had traveled not only from cities within reasonable driving distances from Manhattan, such as Stamford and Boston, but from as far away as Northern Ireland and Mexico to attend one of the shows, see the film, and have a rare opportunity to meet Matt — who stuck around to sign and take photos — in person. My favorite question came from one fan who spent a few minutes heaping the praise on Soul Mining before asking Johnson if that was his favorite The The album. Hilariously, he admitted that not only is Soul Miningnot his favorite album, but in fact he doesn’t think of it much, because he was 21 when he made the album and he is a different person now. I’m not sure people were ready to hear that, but at least he was honest.
Now, let’s go to the show!
Behold: The Beacon Theatre Marquee, Above, and My Ticket, Below!
I really loved the movie, and with a couple of days to digest it and come down off the little cloud I was on from having Matt ask me my name before signing my copy of Soul Mining, I felt like it was a good primer for the show at NYC’s fabulous Beacon Theatre. The The’s full band lineup for the live shows features a member from each of the three previous The The world tours: James Eller on bass (representing the Versus The Worldtour), DC Collard on keyboards (representing the Lonely Planet tour) and Earl Harvin on drums (representing the Naked tour). They are joined by seasoned touring and session guitarist Barrie Cadogan, who was recommend to Johnson by Johnny Marr, and whose eponymous band Little Barrie wrote the song that’s used as the Theme from Better Call Saul! As an aside, Little Barrie is one of my top two favorite bands!
The The Take The Stage
Johnson has stated that for this tour, he wanted to strip-down many of the songs and reduce the sonic palette, so the band wouldn’t be using any samplers, click-tracks, sequencers or synthesizers. It would just be five musicians, performing reinterpretations of The The’s back catalogue. He also announced to the crowd that, since the band were limiting their use of electronics, he would really appreciate it if the audience did the same and put their phones away.
Drummer Earl Harvin and Matt
I was happy to comply, so all of my photos were taken on a point-and-shoot camera from halfway back on the floor. While they are not great, at least you can get a feel for what it looked like inside the Beacon that evening.
“The songs are not intended to be reproductions of the album versions, and many of them don’t sound like they do on the old recordings. Some of the songs do, but if people really want to hear the albums, they should just put on headphones and listen to the albums.” — Matt Johnson
Matt has also stated, on The The’s newly resurrected website, that they have intentionally limited the amount of sounds at their disposal, so the band has to work a bit harder since they can’t rely on recreating the exact sounds from the album (for example, there were no accordions on stage), and decisions are therefore based on creating new arrangements. What is most important is that the emotional force of the songs continues to shine through. In this way, favorite songs (which to my ears were still highly recognizable) felt less like cliched ’80s signifiers, and more like tools being used to excavate emotions from the past. The band was so tight, Matt’s vocals were ridiculously on-point, and the entire set was perfect.
Somebody Got Excited
Matt and Keyboardist DJ Collard
Audiovisual collage artist Vicki Bennett (aka People Like Us), created the kaleidoscopic video installation for the tour, and backdrop visuals also included page after page of pen and ink drawings from Andrew Johnson’s sketch book, which I recognized from having seen them in The Inertia Variations.
Matt and Barrie Cadogan
The band’s much-anticipated performance of “This Is The Day” was all the more emotionally charged when coupled with the official video for that song (from 1984), which appeared behind the band in sync with Matt’s vocals. Most people probably don’t realize that both of Johnson’s parents and all three of his brothers appear in that video. At the very end of the song, his family members appear one at a time to mouth the line, “This is the day” before fading into the next frame. With both of his parents now gone (Johnson’s father passed away this summer) and two of his brothers also deceased, an already deeply powerful song served as a symbolic family requiem. There were some wet eyes during that song, and two of them were mine.
The The Setlist for the Comeback Special Tour at Beacon Theatre, New York City
1. Global Eyes
2. Sweet Bird of Truth
3. Flesh and Bones
5. The Beat(en) Generation
6. Armageddon Days Are Here (Again)
7. We Can’t Stop What’s Coming
8. Beyond Love
9. Love Is Stronger Than Death
10. Dogs of Lust
11. Helpline Operator
12. This Is the Night
13. This Is the Day
14. Soul Catcher
15. Bugle Boy
16. Slow Emotion Replay
17. I Saw the Light (Hank Williams cover)
18. Like a Sun Risin Thru My Garden
20. I’ve Been Waitin’ for Tomorrow (All of My Life)
21. True Happiness This Way Lies
22. Uncertain Smile
23. Lonely Planet
Check Out the Trailer for The Inertia Variations Below!
2010 has been a great year for seeing some of my favorite stand up comedians: Ricky Gervais, Demitri Martin, and just last night I was lucky to catch Daniel Tosh – certainly one of the most wildly popular comedians on the circuit right now – at the first of two shows he played at New York City’s Beacon Theater. I’ve been an avid fan of Tosh’s Comedy Central show, Tosh.0, since I discovered it accidentally about a year ago. As soon as I heard tickets were going on sale for his Tosh 2010 tour, I made sure I grabbed a pair.
For fans of Tosh.0, Daniel’s stand up is slightly different, in that there are no screens, no videos and no props onstage with him at all. It’s all 100% pure Tosh, just riffing seamlessly and brilliantly spot-on about everything and everyone – from the citizens of New Orleans, to Brett Favre to rap artists, whom he sarcastically thanks for “keeping women in their place” – in his signature un-PC style. He is not afraid to say offensive things about every group of people – from religious zealots to political conservatives and liberals as well, not to mention poor and fat people. I love how he simplifies how ridiculous we all are with our “I’m a victim” mentality. No quarter is given, and that’s why Tosh just slays every time. But if you are humorless, overly PC, or offended by anything at all you should probably stay home.
It was a sold-out crowd for the Beacon’s 7:30 show (Tosh performed again at 10 PM) and obviously everyone in attendance was a huge fan of the Comedy Central show. One of my favorite bits was Daniel’s recollection of having been delayed on a flight that sat on the tarmac for three hours while the airline waited for another flight to arrive, so that they could get more seat belt extenders, which are needed when heavy passengers cannot fit within the confines of a standard safety belt. “Not only were they out of seat belt extenders on the plane, they were out of seat belt extenders in the entire airport,” he exclaimed hilariously. This, of course led to his riffs on fat Americans, which are always hilarious, because they are so true. I also enjoyed his bit about what Johnny Depp, at age 48, goes through in his nightly routine to get ready to leave the house, as he decides he needs to accessorize with eight bracelets instead of just seven (this is probably a lot funnier in person than it sounds written down).
One of the more complicated bits Tosh did tied together a horrifying incident at an Atlanta amusement park, where a young man was accidentally decapitated, and how annoying it is when you have a cast on your leg and all anybody wants to ask you is “how did you break your leg?” I didn’t really see where he was going with this one but, trust me, he pulled it off beautifully. The amusement park decapitation/broken leg bit was a perfect example of how you’ll think Tosh is going in one direction with the joke, and then he zigs and zags so much that he gets four or five different punch lines in before he then manages to bring it all back to where he started. I don’t know anyone else who is really able to do that live. It’s also worth noting that one hundred percent of his material was completely new to me, so even if you watch Tosh.0 faithfully, you will probably be surprised by most of what goes down in the live show.
While Daniel’s set was only slightly over one hour long, (not including two warm up acts, one very funny and the other not so much) every second was absolutely, ridiculously funny. I would definitely see him again on any future tour and recommend you check out the Tosh Tour 2010 when it comes to your city. Daniel Tosh!