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Chicago by John Olson

The Pirate Queen
Cadillac Palace Theatre

The Pirate Queen
Stephanie J. Block and
Marcus Chait

A quote in the souvenir program from the show's producers may reveal the problem. Moya Doherty and John McColgan, who previously had a huge hit with Riverdance, explain "We always wanted to produce a major original musical theatre drama ... We wanted it to be Irish, have an epic theme and a central character we and our audience could care about ... Many great figures from Irish history were considered ... but in the end we settled on ... Grace O'Malley." They go on to explain how their first and only choice for writing the project was Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, who brought a similar historical epic of Europe to the musical stage with Les Misérables. The producers and writers surely had a good idea of what The Pirate Queen would look like, and they've probably succeeded in realizing that vision, but they've failed to put together a compelling story or characters, or for that matter, a score worth listening to even once.

According to biographer Anne Chambers, a consultant to The Pirate Queen, Grace O'Malley was the daughter of a 16th century Irish Chieftain, but precluded by law from becoming a Chieftain herself following her father's death. Nonetheless, she became a successful warrior, defender of Ireland and strong adversary to Queen Elizabeth I. "To control her male, multi-tribal crews," Ms. Chambers writes, "to overcome their prejudices and chauvinism, she had to lead from the front, be strong and be successful." She sounds like an amazing person and I may read Ms. Chambers' biography of O'Malley someday, because I sure didn't get much about Grace from this show. It resembles a community or school pageant in its two-dimensional depiction of characters and events. We must believe a character is good or evil, because we are told so, not shown. It seems we are expected to simply "know" that Grace is good, much as if she were George Washington in an American elementary school play. Her lifelong love of Tiernan is assumed, not revealed through detail. Elizabeth I's henchman Lord Bingham is as evil and as subtly drawn as Snidely Whiplash of the "Rocky and Bullwinkle" cartoons.

The Pirate Queen even fails to establish the sense of time and place essential to an historical drama. We need to know more about the social systems of Ireland, the nature of day-to-day living in that society, and at least a little about the conflict with England.

The musical's thin plot is essentially this (skip if you're concerned about spoilers, but beware that the producers felt compelled to give the audience a synopsis to understand the story of this sung-through show): As a young teen, Grace is in love with Tiernan. During a brutal storm, she poses as a boy and climbs the rigging of her father's ship to cut its sail and save the ship from disaster. Despite her demonstrated seaworthiness, her father finds her more valuable as wife to the heir of a powerful clan. For these political and military reasons, she is betrothed to the unfaithful heir Donal and must part from Tiernan. (It takes 35 minutes to get to this point, the first moment of any dramatic conflict in the piece.) Donal is as worthless a warrior as a husband, so she "dismisses" him – something women or at least women of royalty were apparently permitted to do up through the end of a marriage's trial period. Donal then betrays her and she loses her lands to the English. Tiernan trades his freedom for hers, which allows her to return to England and approach the Queen. After a few hours of good old girl talk, the two women are able to negotiate a truce and allow Grace and Tiernan to finally be together.

This story is set to some of the most banal music imaginable, a score that is way below the standards of Les Mis or even Miss Saigon. It appears Schönberg has used music transcription software for composition as well as transcription. It seems that every song uses a short 2-bar motif that is altered ever so slightly – maybe raised up a third – several times, and then strung into a song. The entire score, except for the three major Irish dance numbers, is predictable. (There is no separate credit listed for a dance composer, so presumably Schönberg can take credit for it.) Most of it, save a few moments of comic relief like "Boys'll Be Boys" – the "Masters of the House"–inspired number in which Donal's infidelity is established, or the Gilbert & Sullivan pastiche "Rah-Rah, Tip-Top" – sung in the court of Elizabeth (did the Brits been speak like that in the 16th century?), the music is all at the same anguished level.

Boublil, who wrote the lyrics for Les Mis in French and had them translated into English by Herbert Kretzmer, seems still not ready to be writing verse in English, even with the assistance of the fine American lyricist John Dempsey (The Witches of Eastwick, The Fix). Like Boublil's lyrics for Miss Saigon (co-written with Richard Maltby, Jr.), his verse here still favors short lines and monosyllabic rhymes (like "me" and "be" ) with payoffs you can guess from five or six beats away.

Director Frank Galati hasn't helped matters much either. Though he can presumably be credited for hiring some truly exceptional performers and a first-rate design team, he moves the cast around the stage in patterns that are entirely uninspired. Most scenes end with a performer center stage, left to make that long walk into the wings, while another character or group dutifully enters from the opposite wings. Over 28 scenes, that gets old.

Audiences will nonetheless find their rewards in The Pirate Queen, chiefly the chance to discover leading man Hadley Fraser, learn (if you didn't already know) that Stephanie J. Block is a leading lady of the first caliber who deserves to originate a Broadway lead in a better show than this, and confirm the considerable talents and charms of Jeff McCarthy. Fraser, who plays Tiernan, is a heartthrob with a strong, expressive tenor and a long string of credits in the UK, but apparently working in the US for the first time. Ms. Block as Grace is a complete winner – feminine yet strong, soft yet athletic, and with a voice that makes you think (briefly) there's more to the songs than is actually there. She has future Tony winner written all over her. McCarthy and his solid baritone give a strength and heart to Grace's father, Dubhdara. Linda Balgord's operatic soprano serves her well as an icy Queen and Marcus Chait makes a handsome and slimy Donal.

As the words and music don't do much to establish the setting, that job falls entirely on the scenic design of Eugene Lee and lighting design of Kenneth Posner, and they've come up with some stunning visuals. Lee's backdrops along with blustery sound design by Jonathan Deans and projections by Howard Werner conjure the windswept, wintry bluffs of coastal Western Ireland. Lee's sets include pieces to suggest period sailing ships, complete with climbable riggings for the aerial acrobatics designed by Paul Rubin; medieval Irish castles; and Queen Elizabeth's court. The 42-member cast is wardrobed sumptuously as peasants, sailors, courtiers and a Queen by designer Martin Pakledinaz.

Most satisfying of The Pirate Queen's elements are the Irish dance numbers, choreographed by Carol Leavy Joyce (Mark Dendy is credited as the show choreographer). These dances, which occur during a wedding, a funeral, and a christening - occasions that, according to the souvenir program, would historically have been occasions for dance - are the only times this piece really takes flight and suggests the sort of magic it might have had. The orchestrations and musical direction by Julian Kelly make the dance music especially gorgeous and authentic-sounding, though it's no fault of Kelly (or for that matter of the Irish) that the mere entrance of uilleann pipes and whistles provokes an expectation of Celine Dion singing "My Heart Will Go On."

There's potential for a captivating musical in this subject matter, but the writers didn't find the big ideas in terms of theme, plot and character that would have made it an effective piece of theater. It could have truly transported its audience to another era, but despite the best efforts of the cast and a best-of-class production design team, The Pirate Queen is only successful at taking the audience back to 1980s New York and the sung-through European musicals of that time. At its worst, The Pirate Queen unintentionally evokes the parody opera within the musical of Lloyd Webber's Phantom. In making its voyage to New York and Broadway, this ship may not be as lucky as the one saved by young Grace O'Malley.

The Pirate Queen continues its pre-Broadway tryout at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 1515 W. Randolph, Chicago, through November 26, 2006. For ticket information, visit www.broadwayinchicago.com.

Photo: Joan Marcus

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-- John Olson



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