‘The Lightning Thief’ brings an Olympus-size story to a new stage

Thomas Jefferson High School production concludes May 12-14.

It’s a season of “new” for the Thomas Jefferson High School drama department.

Students there are performing their first major post-COVID musical theater production, at the new school’s brand-new theater, with a new director-producer team.

The 17-student cast and 12-student crew began their ambitious run of “The Lightning Thief: A Percy Jackson Musical” on May 5. The show concludes May 12-14.

The musical is based on Rick Riordan’s “The Lightning Thief,” which concerns the adventures of demigod Percy Jackson.

TJHS Seniors Drake Hedrick, Cam Morse and Joseph Flores play the bold Percy Jackson, analytical Annabeth Chase and loyal satyr sidekick Grover Underwood, respectively. In the musical, the trio must journey to the Underworld on their quest to prevent war from breaking out among the gods.

This is the last show of their high school careers, an emotional reality for students whose high school experience has been anything but typical.

Freshman year — their last “normal” school year before the pandemic — they were lucky to have older peers in school who accepted and encouraged them, the students said, and theater was the proving grounds for their self-discovery.

Grover Underwood (Joseph Flores), Percy Jackson (Drake Hedrick) and Annabeth Chase (Cam Morse) hitch a ride with god of war Ares (Isaac Tapia) on their quest to reach the Underworld. Alex Bruell / The Mirror

Grover Underwood (Joseph Flores), Percy Jackson (Drake Hedrick) and Annabeth Chase (Cam Morse) hitch a ride with god of war Ares (Isaac Tapia) on their quest to reach the Underworld. Alex Bruell / The Mirror

“It gave me an opportunity to prove myself,” Flores said. “If I didn’t have theater, I would still be the same shy kid that I was in middle school.”

“Theater is a safe space,” Morse said. “There were upperclassmen who got me into it, and I was so excited to be in class with them. Then the pandemic happened, and I wasn’t.”

So she learned to be the kind of person she looked up to in school — “and really came out of [her] shell” along the way.

All three see themselves in their characters.

Morse, who plays the shrewd demigod daughter of the goddess Athena, relates to Annabeth, a tough and witty character with a stubborn streak.

“I grew up a perfectionist, and I related a lot to that in her, and being afraid to let people down,” she said. “I really appreciate that she was able to open up … and be herself.”

Flores totally appreciates the loyal, upbeat Grover, who fiercely protects his friends.

“When I first got the character, I thought … this is just like me,” he said. “I put my friends before myself. I feel like that alone really brought me to Grover. Whenever I’m playing Grover on stage, I’m just being myself.”

The minotaur attacks! Alex Bruell / The Mirror

The minotaur attacks! Alex Bruell / The Mirror

And Hedrick, a frequent of local community theater performances, is a big fan of the Percy Jackson series who grew up reading the books. He and the other students lobbied to perform “Lightning Thief,” and ending his high school career playing the main protagonist is “kind of poetic,” he said.

“The kid who sometimes just doesn’t do things the way other people want … he means so much to me, and he’s helped me grow so much as a person,” Hedrick said. “It’s honestly been surreal.”

It certainly doesn’t hurt that “The Lightning Thief” is the first major performance at TJHS’s brand-new performing arts center, part of the new three-story, $115.5 million campus that opened in fall 2021.

The 400-plus seat performing arts center, which replaces the previous campus’ 120-seat theater, is “the nicest one I’ve been in,” Hedrick said. It features a modern computerized setup, and space for the “The Lightning Thief” to be performed with a full live band. The students joked that the new theater’s stage alone isn’t far from the size of the entire old theater.

“It’s just really, really gorgeous,” show choreographer Annie Toro said.

Adult volunteers spent weeks building a huge set for the show, mostly volunteering their time to put together a structure that will last for many future shows, Toro said.

Producer Triss Leder, and Choir and Musical Theatre Director Forrest Leder are a wife-and-husband team of experienced actors. This is the first production Forrest Leder has directed, and it’s an ambitious one.

“Lightning Thief” features complex props like motorcycles and modular buses, huge mythological creatures like the Minotaur that take multiple actors to perform, and large set-piece scenes that must be quickly assembled and torn down as the main trio make their way to the Underworld.

The trio of Annabeth, Grover and Percy meet with Hades (DiAngelo Terrana) himself in the Underworld. Alex Bruell / The Mirror

The trio of Annabeth, Grover and Percy meet with Hades (DiAngelo Terrana) himself in the Underworld. Alex Bruell / The Mirror

Halfway through the show’s run at TJHS, the Leders remarked on the “exponential” growth they’d seen in the student cast and crew over just the first few shows.

“It’s amazing how much they’ve grown,” Forrest said. “They’re finding little things that fit with their character, the mood of the song or the scene, that aren’t necessarily things we directed them to do.”

Key to fostering that growth is creating an environment where it’s OK to make mistakes, and where students know their well-being is more important than the show, the Leders said.

“This isn’t a professional theater. This isn’t a community theater. This is, primarily, a learning theater,” Triss said. “So we try to not have a lot of ‘sorries.’ The end product of the show is fabulous … but if they walk away from it feeling seen, heard and supported … then we’ve succeeded, regardless of the end product.”

Their adult volunteer team is also “phenomenal,” Triss said.

Leder took the reigns of the department from Chelsea Clifton, who kept the program alive during the worst throes of the COVID-19 pandemic after beloved educator Laird Thornton retired in 2019.

“We’re grateful, for both of them, getting to step in here,” Triss said.

Cancellations have been the bitter reality for many performing artists since spring 2020. For young artists, that also meant missing chances to hone their craft through school or community theater performances.

The leads of TJHS’ “Lightning Thief” had this advice for young artists and performers: Ask for help, because the older kids usually would love to give it. Don’t listen to the naysayers — prove to them why you were born to be a performer. And it’s never too late to get started.

“People care about you,” Morse said. “They want you to succeed. You just need to bring it up.”

Minutes after finishing a matinee performance May 6, Flores shared an emotional moment with his co-leads Morse and Hedrick.

“I really do adore you both, with all my heart,” Flores said. “It’s really inspiring just to be here. … I love you guys. Thank you.”

Check it out

“The Percy Jackson Musical” has completed its first weekend and concludes this weekend. You can catch a show at the school’s performing arts center, located at 4248 S. 288th Street, Auburn, at 7 p.m. May 12, 13 and 14. There will also be a 2 p.m. matinee show May 13.