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The Pirate Queen

In this bombastic new musical from the creators of Les Misérables, the troubles are not political but artistic.

Stephanie J. Block and company in The Pirate Queen
(© Joan Marcus)
Sometime in the late 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I held a Tudor tete-a-tete with a fiery Irishwoman called Grace O'Malley, who had made her name by doing some unlikely pirating and had become a royal pain in the neck to the virgin monarch struggling for a firm grip on her empire. Now, 400-plus-years later, this top-girls' encounter has inspired the only enlivening patch in The Pirate Queen, the otherwise bombastically mediocre new musical courtesy of Les Misérables creators Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg (with assists on the book from Richard Maltby Jr. and on the lyrics by John Dempsey).

Directed by Frank Galati, with musical staging by Graciela Daniele, the tuner was imagined by Moya Doherty and John McColgan, the brains behind the wildly successful Riverdance. This producing pair apparently decided it was time to ratchet up that property and figured the way to do it was by putting all that arms-straight-to-the-side jigging into a plot. The result is something that could be dubbed Highseasdance. Moreover, the creators seem to have thought the sight of two headstrong women banging their strong heads together would have particular relevance in an era when even the little mermaid is beloved for demonstrating her female gumption.

So Boublil, Schönberg, and Maltby -- who was added to the mix when the shipboard enterprise ran aground during its Chicago tryout -- have rigged the tale of how Grace (Stephanie J. Block) overrides the objections of her clan-head father, Dubhdara (Jeff McCarthy), to become a pirate queen. Grace can't, however, turn her back on Dad when he tears her from the arms of impassioned lover Tiernan (Hadley Fraser) so she can marry the womanizing Donal O'Flaherty (Marcus Chait) for the sake of clan alliance. Meantime, Grace's ocean-going derring-do puts her on track to be imprisoned by Elizabeth and then to powwow with her. This encounter only occurs after Grace clashes with the Queen's emissary, Sir Richard Bingham (William Youmans), and after she benefits from interference by the sacrificing Tiernan.

It's the Irish Troubles early-style, all right -- only these troubles are not political, but artistic. Grace's plodding story never rises above the reason behind its inception. Worse still, the musical subverts its title. Ticket buyers under the Pirates of the Caribbean influence will undoubtedly think they're going to witness a lot of sea-faring adventure; they aren't, even though set designer Eugene Lee has outfitted the Hilton Theatre's proscenium as a seafaring vessel. There is, however, a fair amount of swordplay (supervised by J. Steven White) whenever marauding English soldiers loom.

While billowing sails are at a minimum, bellowing singers aren't. The cast members have been asked to broadcast the score as if they're at the Met delivering Donizetti's Roberto Devereaux. More to the point, they assault the rafters as if they're in Les Misérables, since this score -- which has nothing of the genuine pathos inherent in Irish folk songs -- is clearly an attempt to reprise the melodic impact of that one. Just for starters, there are obvious variations on "Master of the House" and "Bring Him Home." As for the lyrics, there is a glut of rhymed couplets. And the thoughts expressed! The big ballad, "I'll Be There," includes this bewildering sentiment: "I'll be there / Come the mists on the morrow."

No blame can be pinned on the performers. Block, who resembles Sandra Bullock doing Geena Davis, fights the good sword fight and sings like an avenging angel. So do McCarthy, Fraser, Chait, Balgord, and Youmans in their supporting roles. Galati and Daniele could have done better at minimizing the clunkery of the blocking, although fans of Irish dance will probably be satisfied with Carol Leavy Joyce's authentic choreography.

Still, if there's anything memorable about The Pirate Queen, it's lighting designer Kenneth Posner's images of the gentle sea at sunset and the fabulously ornate finery that Martin Pakledinaz has concocted for Elizabeth, including an Elizabethan tent dress that could actually double as a tent.

Theater lovers know Friedrich Schiller's classic drama about Elizabeth I and her dealings with another, even more famous prisoner: Mary Stuart. The Pirate Queen is a classic, all right, but of an entirely different kind than that stirring enterprise.


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