Creating a character for the stage is challenging.
And when that character is iconic, it can be downright imposing.
The task of making Percy Jackson — the half god/half human hero of a series of best-selling young adult novels by Rick Riordan — into flesh and blood fell to Chris McCarrell in 2017, when "The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical," based on the first of Riordan's books, opened off-Broadway.
McCarrell continues to play Jackson on the musical's first U.S. tour, and while he's not the first actor to take on the role — Logan Lerman starred in the tepidly received 2010 film adaptation — McCarrell, 26, is feeling the love from the Percy Jackson universe.
"Whenever you meet people you can tell that seeing it live on stage makes it realer for them," the Aurora, Ohio native says by phone. "It's a real honor."
McCarrell, who followed his older brother into theater and studied at the Baldwin Wallace University Conservatory of Music in Ohio, had not read the Percy Jackson books before getting cast in the lead role — after a tenure as Marius in "Les Miserables" on Broadway. But after immersing himself in Riordan's character, McCarrell found he could bring unexpected aspects of his own life to the role.
"I think there's a Midwestern vibe to Percy, even though he's from New York," McCarrell explains. "He's trying to figure out his life in the face of some ridiculously large problems — he's saving the world, right? — and no matter how crazy his life gets he has this Midwestern groundedness to him. This is just a normal boy trying to figure out his life and getting on with it.
"I kind of saw myself in his ability to not let his head get wrapped up in the craziness of it all. He always remains pretty grounded and finds the humor in even the most tense situations."
Besides playing Jackson and singing the rock-flavored score each night, McCarrell's challenge now is not letting himself get typecast in the part. He is, for the time being, THE Percy Jackson, but McCarrell is confident he'll be able to move on when the time is right.
"In the theater world, as long as there is versatility in the roles you are doing, it will work out," he explains. "The fact I'm going from 'Les Miz,' which is basically an opera, into a rock musical, and hopefully what's next. ... As long as you keep your line of roles jagged instead of a straight line, where you're playing the same type of role over and over again, it's hard to get locked into just one character.
"It's different in the TV/movie world, but in theater it's easy to be versatile, so I'm looking forward to more and different roles in the future."
"The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical" runs Tuesday, Feb. 26, through March 9 at the Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. Tickets are $49 and up. Call 313-872-1000 or visit broadwayindetroit.com.
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