According to "The Pirate Queen," 16th-century Irish heroine Grace O'Malley was quite a spirited and accomplished lass: as a mere slip of a girl saving a storm-tossed vessel from shipwreck, later fighting and besting the British in naval battles and finally going one-an-one with Queen Elizabeth I to lift the fortunes of the Irish people.
Yet even Grace is defeated by this eamest musical adaptation of her life story, a stilted history pageant that is long on looks but woefully short on emotional engagement. The lavish production, which opened Thursday at Broadway's Hilton Theatre, telescopes the woman's life into a series of dramatic tableaux that are underlined by a bombastic score courtesy of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, the duo who gave us "Les Miserables" and "Miss Saigon."
Unfortunately, the music for "The Pirate Queen" is closer in quality to the team's "Martin Guerre," a morose show that never got to New York from London. And the plot of the "The Pirate Queen" is equally dreary despite its evocative nautical settings and lovely glimpses of the Irish coast. These designs are the expert work of Eugene Lee, the man who created the gargantuan world of Oz for "Wicked."
In fact, "Wicked" is another show "The Pirate Queen" evokes. Like Elphaba and Glinda in that hit musical, we are in the presence of two strong women, Grace, portrayed by a game Stephanie J. Block, and Elizabeth, brought to life in all her imperial glory by Linda Balgord.
It's their eventual meeting, late in Act 2, and forging of friendship that finally shakes the musical out of its slumber, injecting a bit of feminist dramatic tension into formulaic storytelling.
Until then, we are stuck with a dutiful unfolding of Grace's life and her involvement with a trio of men. The tale has been stitched together by Boublil, Schonberg and Richard Maltby Jr., the latter brought in after the show's Chicago tryout last fall.
There's Grace's kindly father (the always reliable Jeff McCarthy), who, at first, resists her refusal to stay at home and her desire go to sea.
Then there's her one true love, Tiernan, played by a boyish Hadley Fraser, the man she doesn't marry, but who nevertheless pledges eternal devotion. Fraser possesses one of those booming voices, just right for "I'll Be There," the show's most insistent anthem. It's hard to believe that the musical's elemental, simplistic lyrics are the work of three people - Boublil, Maltby and John Dempsey.
Finally, there is Donal O'Flaherty, the man Grace does marry to unite two rival clans. He's a chauvinistic pig and a traitor, too, but at least in Marcus Chait's snarling performance he sneers with a robust theatricality.
The show's producers, Moya Doherty and John McColgan, are best known for "Riverdance," but the Irish-style dancing for which that fabulously successful troupe is famous is kept to a minimum here. Director Frank Galati has had an assist from Graciela Daniele with the show's musical staging.
To its credit, "The Pirate Queen" strives for a certain authenticity. Carol Leavy Joyce is billed as the show's Irish dance choreographer and some of the numbers, particularly a wedding dance, lift the musical's sagging story.
Like Grace, Balgord's Queen Elizabeth faces similar obstacles because of her sex - and triumphs in spite of them. Yet her main opponent, Sir Richard Bingham, is almost played for laughs, particularly in William Youmans' caricature of a performance.
Balgord has considerable stage presence and a voice able to negotiate even the most difficult of melodies. The actress is decked out in some of designer Martin Pakledinaz's most opulent costumes, a different and more elaborate outfit for every entrance.
Yet in the end, "The Pirate Queen" remains a dry history lesson, a musical that presents the past in such a perfunctory manner that Grace O'Malley sinks in a sea of ordinary.
Imagine "Les Miserables" going out to meet "Riverdance" and somehow missing the boat. That's what happened with "The Pirate Queen," which opened last night.
It's the latest collaboration of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, who gave us "Les Miserables" and "Miss Saigon."
This time, instead of having canny Cameron Mackintosh at the helm, the producers are Moya Doherty and John McColgan of "Riverdance" fame.
Assisted by John Dempsey and, later, Richard Maltby Jr., Boublil and Schonberg have emerged with this sea-drenched tale set in Elizabethan times.
Although Schonberg's score contains a few Irish folksy melodies, I still came out humming "Les Miserables," and that is Schonberg's main problem.
Apart from the repetitive and self-congratulatory music, the only major flaws in the show are the basically banal lyrics and sung-through book.
It has Elizabeth I (Linda Balgord), dolled up to the neck-ruff by costume designer Martin Pakledinaz, beadily eyeing world conquest and distressed by the pesky Irish opposition.
She sends an ultra-mean guy, Sir Richard Bingham, (William Youmans, all snooty accent and vibes to match), to suppress the natives, but he's foiled by an unusual clan chieftain: a buccaneering girl, Grace, "Grania," O'Malley (Stephanie J. Block).
Eventually, Elizabeth - recognizing a queen when she meets one – forgives Grace and sends Bingham to the Tower.
And Grace - who meanwhile has gotten rid of her husband, the nastily bumptious Donal O'Flaherty (Marcus Chait) - finally returns, piracy behind her, to live out her days with her loyal lover, Tiernan (Hadley Fraser).
Before long, though, "The Pirate Queen" capsizes and sinks.
There are some gallant attempts at bailing out by the crew of actors and dancers, shakily captained by director Frank Galati and Graciela Daniele, who's credited with the musical staging.
The dancing, in its combination of Irish step-dancing and Broadway Dance 101, proves terrific, and Daniele, working with Carol Leavy Joyce (billed as "Irish Dance Choreographer"), lift downcast spirits with every jig.
Block gives a grand rambunctious performance of which even Errol Flynn might have been proud, Fraser proves a delight as the spirited Tiernan, while Chait convinces as the rascally traitorous Donal.
Lovely comic support comes from Youmans as Bingham, while Balgord steals scenes nicely as an Elizabeth with more of Bette Davis' joyous malice than Helen Mirren's circumspect dignity.
But in musical theater, as on those seven seas, when the ship's going down, you're going down with it.
Many and exhausting are the physical activities that occupy the long hours of “The Pirate Queen,” the loud and restless musical that opened last night at the Hilton Theater.
Sword fights, frolicsome jigs, flag hoisting, rope pulling, stately processions, mincing minuets and hearty river dancing (with ship paddles, no less): such circulation-stimulating exercises occur regularly in this singing costume drama of love and patriotism on the high seas — sometimes, it seems, all at the same time.
Yet everything ultimately blurs into what feels like the aimless milling of a crowd on a carnival midway. The operating theory behind “The Pirate Queen” would appear to be taken from an appropriately ocean-themed bit of zoology: if, like a shark, it never stops moving, then it will stay alive. The optimism is misplaced.
“The Pirate Queen” is the latest work from the songwriters Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, who became the ultimate power poperetta team with the blockbusters “Les Misérables” and “Miss Saigon.” The timing of their most recent collaboration — inspired by the life and legend of Grace O’Malley, an Irish pirate leader in the age of Elizabeth I — is unfortunate on several levels.
For one thing, it really isn’t fair to open the poor “Pirate Queen” when a revival of “Les Misérables” is running just two blocks away. Granted, the current “Misérables” is smaller and tinnier than the original (which closed only in 2003). But it plies the same historical-epic formula as “The Pirate Queen” to far more coherent and compelling ends. There’s not a ballad or choral number in “The Pirate Queen” that doesn’t sound like a garbled echo of a more stirring tune from “Les Miz,” given the requisite touch of green via musical accents of pennywhistle, uilleann pipes and Gaelic harps. And why wasn’t it arranged for “The Pirate Queen,” which features various hoist-a-glass anthems to the Irish soul, to open on St. Patrick’s Day?
Timing is against this musical in a more significant sense as well. “The Pirate Queen” registers as a relic of a long-gone era, and I don’t mean the 1500s. The big-sound, big-cast show pioneered by Messrs. Boublil and Schönberg is now as much a throwback to the 1980s as big hair and big shoulders. The crushing tidal waves of music that emanate from the stage, eardrum-tingling as they are, seem to come from distant shores indeed.
It’s the decibel level that keeps you awake at “The Pirate Queen,” with its direction by Frank Galati and musical staging by Graciela Daniele, who worked together on “Ragtime.” Never mind that the production’s individual elements have all clearly been picked for their audience-rousing potential, including those halfhearted, stage-bruising Celtic dance sequences (choreographed by Carol Leavy Joyce) created to appeal to “Riverdance” fans. (The show’s Irish husband-and-wife producers, Moya Doherty and John McColgan, created the popular “Riverdance” spectacle.)
The plot, in addition to its swashbuckling picturesqueness, aims to deliver firm thumps to feminist and nationalist reflexes. Grace (Stephanie J. Block) is not only a young woman who proves she can take charge in a man’s world (rather like the feisty young heroines of animated Disney musicals of the last two decades). She also speaks up (or sings up) against the oppression of the Irish by the English, which occasions full-hearted, intricately harmonized, standard-issue anthems in the second act.
Against a backdrop of lush-colored skies that suggest a Wild West sequence from an MGM musical of the 1950s, Grace proves her mettle to her chieftain/sea captain father (Jeff McCarthy) by saving a ship in a thunderstorm and fighting off a hundred or so bloodthirsty Englishmen.
“I should be free,” she sings, “Free to be Grace/So I can feel the wind on my face!” The lyrics in this almost entirely sung-through show are by Mr. Boublil, Richard Maltby Jr. (who collaborated with Mr. Boublil and Mr. Schönberg on the book) and John Dempsey. They often have such sweaty, shoehorned rhymes, it is as if they had been invented on the spot.
Grace goes on to marry a dissolute rake (Marcus Chait) to bring peace to the warring Irish clans while remaining true in her fashion to her first love, Tiernan (the Leonardo DiCaprio look-alike Hadley Fraser). Finally, she confronts Queen Elizabeth I herself to plead for the rights of her people. Grace trumps Elizabeth because, although she may be only a pirate queen, at least she’s not a virgin queen. A model for postfeminist femininity, Grace sings in the final scene:
From Sketch to Stage I fought my wars on land and sea
To be a woman strong and free
I should have learned, at journey’s start,
No woman’s free who ignores her heart.
Grace’s journey of the heart takes place in breathless double time, and it’s often hard to tell how many years have elapsed between scenes. The special-event pageantry of Eugene Lee’s sets, Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes and Kenneth Posner’s lighting rarely clarifies the plot. And Mr. Galati’s staging tends to step on what should be breathtaking climaxes or curtain lines. (I was never sure in the death scenes when, or even if, characters had really died.)
Ms. Block works hard to give a truly felt, realistic performance, and she sings attractively in her quieter moments. (Under pressure, this Pirate Queen turns into a Celine Dion screecher.) But the production keeps undercutting her, both by haziness of focus and a slow drift toward campiness.
The show’s queen of camp is, as she should be, its Queen Elizabeth, played by Linda Balgord. (William Youmans, as her conniving courtier, gives her a run for her money with an interpretation that brings to mind Vincent Price at his snarkiest.)
Ms. Balgord, who played Norma Desmond in the national tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Boulevard,” appears to be continuing that performance here, which is kind of enjoyable when you’re starved for distraction.
Mr. Pakledinaz has given her an increasingly deluxe and unwieldy series of queenly gowns, which wind up being high points of visual wit — or, for that matter, of any wit. It says a lot that the most compelling question posed by this fuzzy musical is, “What will Elizabeth wear next?”
At one point early in "The Pirate Queen/' most of the 42 cast members stand onstage braced for battle, the Irish soldiers facing their British counterparts. It seems the audience is about to be treated to a rousing, "300"-style fight to the death.
But a few seconds later, the stage is almost blank. A few scattered soldiers run this way and that. Some jump in the air like a child imitating a ballet dancer, while others swing swords at them, missing by several feet.
Such avoidance of real emotion is typical of "The Pirate Queen” the new musical at the Hilton Theatre that, at times, goes out of its way to be dramatically inert.
The show staggered into town with the kind of unfavorable buzz that makes critics feel like Barry Bonds preparing to face Roger Clemens' grandma.
"The Pirate Queen" isn't an embarrassment like "Dance of the Vampires" or a vanity project like "In My Life." It just feels a little sad, as if a lot of people put a lot of time into something that's simply lifeless. It makes one think: Turkeys aren't funny anymore.
"The Pirate Queen" tells the story of Grace O'Malley, a 16th-century pirate who leads an Irish rebellion against the British, led by Queen Elizabeth I. Grace does this despite being - as everyone keeps reminding us - a woman.
She's the kind of feminist who makes Susan B. Anthony look like Larry Flynt. Right after giving birth, she drags herself out of bed and crawls across the battlefield to stab a British soldier.
The show boasts the songwriting team of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg of "Les Miserables" and "Miss Saigon" fame. But "Les Miz," despite being a period mega-musical, continually surprises the audience as its characters confront true-to-life moral dilemmas and make inspiring choices.
"The Pirate Queen" is based on a true story but does a poor job of proving it.
The characters seem to do things not because they want to, but because the script tells them to.
For instance, at one point Grace's father wants his clan to unite with another clan, so apparently Grace has to marry the other chieftain's son. No character onstage seems thrilled about this. Grace's real true love hangs around just in case. Even her father says the marriage's first three years are just a trial period.
A couple of scenes later, Grace's new husband stumbles home from a night of partying. She boldly declares, "This is no marriage." What did you expect it to be? Lucy and Ricky Ricardo?
Fans will recognize Schonberg's music - the opening song evokes "Do You Hear the People Sing?" from "Les Miz" - with slight Irish inflections expressed primarily via the orchestrations' pipes and whistles. The lyrics are infuriatingly predictable, as phrases like "seize the day, this is it" simply wash over us, meaning nothing.
At the performance I attended, Stephanie J. Block, playing Grace, was replaced early in the first act by Kathy Voytko, whose lovely voice bloomed during a few tranquil second act moments. Hadley Fraser has an enjoyable tenor in the role of Tiernan, Grace's true love (though the writers fail to make their love convincing).
The show finds a couple invigorating moments of Irish dancing - after all, its producers created "Riverdance."
The idea of an adventure musical about a female pirate hero whose feminist ideals create an unlikely bond with her enemy doesn't seem so horrible. But whatever alchemy made "Les Miz" so magical simply doesn't exist here.
When a pop culture throwback appears earnestly unaware of how firmly its style and conception are rooted in another era, is it retro or just outmoded? The lumbering epic "The Pirate Queen" comes down on the latter side. As "Les Miserables" creators Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg showed with their last excursion into romantically embroidered 16th century historical tapestry, the commercially ill-fated "Martin Guerre," the French composing team's bombastic 1980s megamusical formula now sits stodgily onstage. Their all-plot, no-heart new show is persuasively sung by a valiant cast, yet it never forges an emotional connection with the audience.
Show doctors were enlisted after the tepid critical reception to Frank Galati's production during its tryout run in Chicago last fall. Richard Maltby Jr. was tasked with strengthening the book and lyrics, Graciela Daniele with beefing up the musical staging, reportedly pushing the already hefty pricetag north of $16 million. Oddly, though, it's less the creative team than producers Moya Doherty and John McColgan who are responsible for the show's distinguishing element.The husband-and-wife partners were behind "Riverdance," which pounded almost as many international stages through the 1990s as Boublil and Schonberg's monster hits did during the previous decade. But despite that phenomenon being perhaps the world's most over-exposed commercialization of traditional Irish culture, the too-infrequent explosions of step-dancing -- during a wedding, a funeral and a christening -- are the only times "The Pirate Queen" really comes alive. Whoever thought they'd be waiting impatiently for the next Celtic kickline?
Their torsos rigid while their scissoring legs slice the air, alternating between flying leaps and tight formations as their feet hammer the boards, the dancers (many of them "Riverdance" alumni) display a driving energy that points up the absence of similar visceral thrills elsewhere.
The title of Morgan Llywelyn's source novel, "Grania -- She King of the Irish Seas," promises high camp with eye patches, earrings, peg-legs and maybe even a parrot. Alas, no, it's all far more serious. The musical traces the life of Irish seafaring warrior Grace "Grania" O'Malley (Stephanie J. Block), who died in 1603. Bulging with cumbersome exposition, it covers the proto-feminist path of not just one woman in a man's domain but also of a second, Queen Elizabeth I (Linda Balgord). The show has plenty of romance, adventure, battles, royal court intrigue and the erosion of a proud traditional culture, yet somehow it remains mostly inert.
Act one is especially belabored. Grace defies her widowed pirate chieftain father, Dubhdara (Jeff McCarthy), by disguising herself as a boy to slip aboard his ship, proving herself a formidable sailor when she saves the vessel during a storm. Betraying a love that blossomed from childhood with crewmate Tiernan (Hadley Fraser), Grace agrees to a strategic marriage to Donal (Marcus Chait), the scion of a rival clan, easily identified by the size of his codpiece as a philandering scoundrel. Fatally wounded in battle, Dubhdara bucks tradition and angers Donal by naming Grace his successor.
Across the Irish Sea, Elizabeth is rankled by Grace and crew's continuing humiliation of her fleet. She dispatches conniving Sir Richard Bingham (William Youmans, in a villainous turn with all the subtlety of Snidely Whiplash) to seize control.
All this unfolds over a monotonous first hour, alleviated by the dance segs and some pleasing vocal work on a largely unmemorable score laced with Uilleann pipes, harp, flute and Irish fiddles. There are about 15 I-pledge, I-vow, I-swear songs too many, but Fraser's powerfully emotional tenor sets apart "I'll Be There." Also vocally accomplished, Block makes a feisty, attractive lead, but all the characters remain bland cutouts suffocated by plot.
The show builds toward a Krystal vs. Alexis-type showdown between Grace and the imperious Elizabeth (played by Balgord with icy stiffness and a cutting semi-operatic soprano). Fueled by their rivalry and the mutual admiration of two rebellious women who have stepped outside their prescribed roles, this section does provide some belated emotional involvement. The clean staging of the women's duet, "She Who Has All," with light streaming in on them from single windows high above, is striking. But the writers cheat by playing the decisive meeting largely as a closed-door conversation behind a screen and the woman-to-woman truce feels simplistic.
Schonberg's score generally strives too hard for stirring moments, inducing so many blustery crescendos from the start that it has no place to build. Galati's staging under-uses the aerial opportunities of the ship's masts and rigging while rarely milking much excitement from the swordplay.
Eugene Lee's sets are elaborate but visually uninteresting, with too many vividly hued skyscape backdrops. Martin Pakledinaz's detailed costumes are more successful, with the fan-collared, heavily upholstered Elizabethan garb providing plenty of scope for ornate excess.
The sad realization of watching "The Pirate Queen" is not that it's especially bad, but that despite its dense action and wealth of conflict (both of the heart and the sword), it's dull. It's a relief in this context to be jarred out of boredom by the crotch-thrusting, hip-grinding vulgarity and innuendo-drenched lyrics ("I may well have to beach her/Take her inland to teach her") of Chait's act-one song, "Boys'll Be Boys" -- a raucous pub number filled with lusty lads and brassy tarts, which corresponds precisely to "Master of the House" in "Les Miz." Elsewhere, this is a plodding Harlequin historical romance. For all its inflamed passions, it never ignites.