October 20, 2006

Yarr...Pirate Queen masters set sail on tired path

The math is bizarre but accurate: Les Mis plus Riverdance plus Wicked somehow yields pirates. Walk down Randolph toward the river and you will be greeted by the very blue posters for Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s new (pre-Broadway, if you please) musical The Pirate Queen, which explores the dramatic possibilities in the legend of Irish pirate Grace O’Malley.

The quality of the production team is just about the highest money can buy. Author/composer team Boublil and Schönberg are legends in their own time for their epic and wildly popular operatic musicals Les Misérables and Miss Saigon. Commissioners and producers Moya Coherty and John McColgan also produced the Irish culture revue Riverdance. Add set designer Eugene Lee and lighting designer Kenneth Posner, best known for their work on Wicked, and you get high-class, high-tech magic created by masters. So I expected; so I hoped. Unfortunately, I was disappointed by at least four of those masters, who couldn’t seem to move beyond their signature pieces.

In the history of musical theater, there have been stronger central characters than Grania “Grace” O’Malley, the highborn Irishwoman who, here as in real life, resisted the conquest of Ireland under Elizabeth I. A female pirate sounds exciting, but the plot is far more concerned with emotional torment than piracy. Instead of sinking ships, we follow Grace as she is forced to leave her teenage crush Tiernan and pushed into a political marriage with hard-drinking chauvinist Donal. Nearly every character is tormented (except maybe Donal, but Tiernan’s lengthy sufferings are more than enough for two), but the pirate sequences are few and far between.

The story does work quite well as an academic exercise. Built around contrasting sexual and national dualisms, the scenes and characterizations are balanced excellently. Ireland is green and brown, the peasants dressed in soft fabrics and trailing cloaks. They sing, dance, and make merry, suffused with green, gold, and purple light. Their leader, Grace, is a soprano with a robust chest range, mellow and deeply emotive.

The English court is, by comparison, a clockwork creation led by an overdressed, and extremely operatic soprano. Accompanied by a stiff harpsichord continuo, the courtiers skim the stage, dressed in monochromatic exaggerations of Elizabethan style. Grace and Elizabeth, capable women performing men’s jobs, ground the musical and are constantly contrasted in their appearance, characterization, and philosophy. The villains of The Pirate Queen, of course, are males who advocate tradition and are deeply misogynistic.

As entertainment, the show is not quite as successful. It suffers from problems evident in Boublil and Schönberg’s earlier work: too much story, too many characters, and too much high drama. Musicals tend to have very basic plots because they are compressed emotional rollercoasters, and the audience needs a lot of time to sit on the emotions. Because The Pirate Queen contains so much storyline, it lacks the time to empathize. Grace comes across as flat, though the impressive talents of singer Stephanie Block just about carry the character. Romantic interest Tiernan, on the other hand, lacks any defining qualities and exists to adore unconditionally. Unexpectedly, it is Elizabeth who emerges as the only character with any kind of depth.

The biggest problem with The Pirate Queen is that it is more of an amalgam of a star team than a new work. The music sounds like the score from Les Misérables, and the scenes that work (such as the tavern number in the first act) also echo that musical. The energetic parts of the show—welcome and rare as the few moments of comedy—are Riverdance inserts, in which the bouncing Irish dancers look as though they’re having rather more fun than the main characters. The elaborate decorations on the proscenium, the subtle sliding set, and the stage pyrotechnics are straight from Wicked, as are the gorgeous deep colors of the lighting design.

The structure also bears a certain resemblance to Wicked and Les Mis, both of which are highly unusual in that they are built around non-romantic relationships. The Pirate Queen cheerfully takes on this newest fad by focusing on Elizabeth and Grace, and even casts Stephanie Block, the workshop and first national tour lead in Wicked. I mention this both because it shows in her mannerisms and because it only leads to more confusion about what exactly we have here: a shiny new collection of fads and tricks, or a solid whole.

The Pirate Queen has a lot to live up to, and debuting so closely in proximity and time to the juggernaut Wicked demands a comparison which is both irresistible and unfair. But even on its own merits, The Pirate Queen is weak, lacking the charm and even the drama of earlier works by the members of the production team. On the other hand, it is awfully pretty, the songs are semi-memorable, the dancing is great, and the funny parts are all the more valuable for their rarity. Besides, it is about pirates.