Volume 76, Number 48 | April 25 - May1, 2007

Theater

THE PIRATE QUEEN
By Alain Boublil & Claude-Michel Schonberg
Directed by Frank Galati
The Hilton Theatre
213 West 42nd St
(212-307-4100; thepiratequeen.com)

Photo by Joan Marcus

“The Pirate Queen,” more opera than musical, falls flat compared to its creators’ other blockbuster hits like “Les Miserables.”

A surreal Celtic hootenanny

By Scott Harrah

One must note that Alain Boublil and Claude Michel Schonberg — the dynamic duo that created the musical blockbusters “Miss Saigon” and “Les Miserables” — have obvious great intentions and creative ambitions with this lavish, multimillion-dollar theatrical retelling of the life of 16th century female Irish chieftan Grace O’Malley and her quest to protect Ireland from invading British troops in the days of Queen Elizabeth I. The story has all the elements for an historical epic that captures, through music and song, the plight of the Irish: real-life intrigue amongst warring Irish clans, British invasions, and a freedom fighter who just happened to be a woman and took on the male-dominated field of the military centuries before the birth of feminism.

Historical sagas that involve the inimitable Queen Elizabeth I are usually fascinating (as attested in recent films and miniseries about Henry the VIII’s Protestant daughter starring big names like Cate Blanchett and Helen Mirren). There is also a love story between Grace O’Malley (Stephanie J. Block) and her longtime friend Tiernan (Hadley Frasier). So this story should have been as compelling as any drama that depicts the Irish fighting British tyranny and imperialism, but for some reason it is not. What’s wrong with “The Pirate Queen”? Many of the quasi-Celtic songs sound like a cross between funeral dirges and Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” from “Titanic.” In addition, the plot drags at a lugubrious pace, and will make even the most diehard Hibernophiles want to shout, “Erin go blah!”

“The Pirate Queen” is more of an opera than a musical since there is little dialogue and the show relies heavily on its songs to propel the plot forward. The trouble is that we really never learn much about the characters. In addition, the songs are often too vague, with awkward lyrics too silly to bother quoting, that say little about the action, and this results in a sung narrative that never evokes any true emotion.

As Grace, Stephanie J. Block sings well and radiates the necessary spunk and tomboyish beauty to capture the essence of the legendary lady warrior. The show’s true standout, however, is surprisingly Grace’s nemesis, Queen Elizabeth I (Linda Balgord). With her classic-sounding operatic voice, elegant mannerisms and over-the-top costumes, Balgord’s “Virgin Queen” is often the most intriguing character in the show, and she plays her with such conviction that a Tony nomination for Best Supporting Actress could be a possibility. One knows, however, that something must be amiss when, in an Irish musical, the Queen of England seems more like a heroine herself than a villain. In fact, the scenes that truly work the most are those that feature Queen Elizabeth. Scenes set in the rugged West of Ireland, Grace’s windswept homeland, primarily depict the misty landscape, but the opulent sets of the English Court provide a solid backdrop and add a badly needed visual anchor for the story.

When Grace is seen on stage with her true love Tiernan or her father Dubdhara (played with touching aplomb by Jeff McCarthy), the story is certainly intriguing, but the real chemistry and sparks fly between Grace, the female leader of war-torn Ireland, and the woman who reigns supreme over the Emerald Isle, Queen Elizabeth. Although Grace is essentially a hostile enemy of the British Empire, the queen finds common ground in the Pirate Queen as she realizes that they are both strong women who wish to rule nations. This is most evident in act two’s climactic duet “She Who Has All.” When we see these two characters singing together, it’s a magical moment indeed, and adds depth to these empowered women from the history books.

“The Pirate Queen,” however, lacks badly needed thematic focus. Many of the somber, dour songs — a good portion of the show’s songbook — oftentimes segue into jaunty musical extravaganzas like act one’s “Boys’ll Be Boys,” featuring the Irish step-dancing that was so popular in producers’ Moya Doherty and John McColgan’s international hit “Riverdance.” For such a serious story, though, this type of lavish production number, with Carol Leavy Joyce’s high-spirited choreography and Graciela Daniele’s Gaelic musical staging, sometimes makes “The Pirate Queen” seem like a surreal Celtic hootenanny. Even joyous Irish jigs, however, cannot liven up this solemn, disappointing show.


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