Chris McCarrell leads ‘The Lightning Thief’ national tour

By : Ryan Williams-Jent
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Chris McCarrell knew he wasn’t done playing the titular lead he originated in “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” when the popular Off-Broadway production came to a close in 2017.

“My dream growing up was to get with a show at its ground level and truly watch it become what it needed to become,” the openly LGBTQ, 28 year-old performer says. “I just couldn’t sit at home while I knew people were seeing ‘The Lightning Thief’ and I wasn’t there. When I was offered the tour, I knew that if anyone was going to carry this character to the next step of the show, it had to be me.”

Based on of the 2005 fantasy series of the same name by Rick Riordan—which also inspired two 20th Century Fox films—“The Lightning Thief” is rooted in mythology. It follows McCarrell’s Jackson, a normal teenager who discovers he’s a demigod destined for an epic quest to locate Zeus’ missing lightning bolt and prevent a war between the Greek gods.

“I feel completely married to this show,” McCarrell says. “This is truly one of those golden gems of a role that was untouched when I walked into it, which is where I thrive. I knew that this tour was the next step.”

Watermark spoke with McCarrell, who’s proven lightning can strike twice, ahead of tour’s stop at the Straz Center in Tampa July 9-14.

WATERMARK: What led you to a life in theater?

CHRIS McCARRELL: I thought my older brother was the coolest guy ever and he was into musical theater, so I always thought it was one of the coolest things you could do. It fit me artistically and socially. I didn’t fit into a lot of other areas in school, like sports or things like that, so I fell in love with it. In high school my freshman year, that’s when I really decided that I wanted to make a career out of it. I started training intensely.

You played Marius in Broadway’s “Les Mis” and a lost boy in NBC’s “Peter Pan Live.” How did the roles prepare you for Percy?

My shows before “Lightning Thief” gave me the confidence to approach the show and really come in as a creative person. Rather than waiting for people to tell me what to do, I came in and was ready to problem solve. I think that this show needed as many minds working on it as possible. I can’t imagine walking into rehearsal as confidently as I did if this was one of my first jobs out of school and now I feel like the character is really something that I helped create. I was open about my ideas and feelings in the room—I talked with the writer, the director and the choreographer—and we really worked together to create a character that feels right and fits the story.

How do you connect with him?

Percy is kind of the anti-hero. He’s this skinny kid with ADHD and dyslexia who’s kind of an outcast in school. He has one friend who is just as weird as him and he realizes that he has these powers that link to his long-lost father being a Greek god. I always felt growing up I was just odd enough to not be in the “in crowd.” I had one foot in and one foot out—upon first meeting me it was like, “okay, maybe you’re normal,” and then the more people got to know me the more they realize that I’m kind of an odd duck.

I feel like I connect with him in that way. On the surface, he seems like he would fit in fine, but the more you learn about him, the more you realize that he’s a misfit. So I connected with him on that because getting into musical theater and trying to get on Broadway, there was this huge force in my life to bulk up. To be this charming, leading man that makes all the girls swoon, which seemed kind of boring to me. So I tried to forge my own path creatively, and really celebrate that side of me that wasn’t the cool, sexy leading man. Percy was just kind of this role that fell into my lap that I feel uses my entire spectrum of personality.

Do you think that’s why LGBTQ audiences can connect with the show?

Oh, totally. What’s so important too is that there’s no forced romantic plot in the show, which is an exciting thing for audiences, I think, and also actors. There’s nothing more boring than being the guy that’s running after the girl in the show—and in this show, there’s no time for these characters to have some forced love story. There are relationships, and there are underlying feelings behind them, but we’re all too busy trying to save the world to have a love duet in the middle of the show, which I love. Not just because it kind of makes the sexuality of the characters vague but because it mirrors life.

How so?

When we enter a quest in life, and when things get hard, those romantic scenes in our lives kind of take a backseat. In this show, we do the same thing; we’re trying to save the world and figure ourselves out. We do it through friendship, but we never fall into that kind of Broadway, candy-coated love story. I think people really appreciate that.

Were you familiar with the source material before auditioning?

No, I was completely fresh to the story walking in which is probably why I got it. (Laughs.) It’s a huge young adult series with a ton of pressure surrounding it. I think if I had entered that culture, before I had known that I had gotten apart, I would have been overwhelmed by how many opinions there were on the character. Being fresh to it I approached it like I approach any character—I wanted him to make sense and I wanted him to come instinctually from what I possessed. I knew if I did that that I would get it right. I think any prior relationship with the character would have distorted and confused that process for me.

The show has been compared to “Harry Potter” and “Dear Evan Hansen.” How do you describe it?

I actually love that description. The whole point of this world that we’re entering, and the problems that it presents, is that we have the same struggles that happen in normal, average life. The scenes are so grounded in the teenage condition of not fully understanding yourself. Of wanting to be accepted by your friends and your parents as you become your fully realized self. It’s really grounded in real life problems, but in situations that are so beyond what any normal person experiences. That’s a perfect description of to the main energies in our show.

What are some of your takeaways from touring?

The show is for families that are not the types of families that can plan week-long vacations to New York City to see Broadway shows. On a more personal and artistic note, I wanted to bring the show to the people that need and want it. That has been a huge motivator to keep us going. I’m just so amazed that we can trek across the entire country and no matter where we go, we can always find people that feel united by this show. That’s such an amazing concept to me that in such a vast geographic landscape, there are people that connect with this story over and over again. It shows even more why this tour needed to happen and why it’s important that we’re bringing it across the country.

Why do you think live theater is so important today?

There’s something about the intimacy of sitting in the theater, knowing that it’s happening unedited and unfiltered in front of you. There’s this raw connection on stage that the audience can sense. I think theater is more important now than it’s ever been and our show connects with audiences. It makes them think about how to be a better parent, how to be a better citizen of the world, how to be a son that stands up for himself when he needs to. I think that’s very important now at this stage of our culture.

For people familiar with the material, why is the show a must-see?

The Easter eggs that we put into it from the actual book are scattered everywhere. You can tell when an audience is a book-loving audience, because they’ll literally applaud during some lines. There’s such a true understanding of the book that is built into our show, because we knew that’s what the secret sauce of it would be; what made the book so special is what was going to make our show so special. There’s such a deep, complex understanding of the source material from our writers and it translates into everything from the props to the songs to the costumes.

What about for those who aren’t familiar?

This world we present is even more exciting when you don’t expect it. At the beginning of the show, everything feels totally normal and it’s turned on its head when a substitute teacher sprouts wings. I think the excitement and the surprise of people walking into this blind is actually a benefit. We make this otherworldly quest possible on stage and people of all generations and all knowledge levels of the series can just as easily step into this world as the next person. I think we’ve done a great job of making it exciting for both old and new audiences.

“The Lightning Thief” plays at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa July 9-14 and a pre-show lottery will be held beginning two and a half hours prior to each performance. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit their website.

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