Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 5, 2007
The Pirate Queen A New Musical. Book by Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, and Richard Maltby, Jr.. Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg. Lyrics by Alain Boublil, Richard Maltby, Jr., John Dempsey. Based upon the novel, “Grania – She King of the Irish Seas” by Morgan Llywelyn. Directed by Frank Galati. Musical staging by Graciela Daniele. Scenic design by Eugene Lee. Costume design by Martin Pakledinaz. Lighting design by Kenneth Posner. Sound design by Jonathan Deans. Hair design by Paul Huntley. Special effects design by Gregory Meeh. Aerial sequence design by Paul Rubin. Make-up design by Angelina Avallone. Fight director J. Steven White. Orchestrations, vocal arrangements, musical supervision & direction by Julian Kelly. Irish dance choreographer Carol Leavy Joyce. Starring Stephanie J. Block, Hadley Fraser, Linda Balgord, Marcus Chait, Jeff McCarthy, William Youmans. With Nick Adams, Richard Todd Adams, Caitlin Allen, Steven Barath, Sea Beglan, Timothy W. Bish, Jerad Bortz, Troy Edward Bowles, Grady McLeod Bowman, Rachel Bress, Don Brewer, Kimilee Bryant, Alexis Ann Carra, Noelle Curran, Bobbie Ann Dunn, Brooke Elliott, Christopher Garbrecht, Eric Hatch, Cristin J. Hubbard, David Koch, Timothy Kochka, Jamie LaVerdiere, Joseph Mahowald, Tokiko Masuda, Christopher Grey Misa, Padraic Moyles, Brian O’Brien, Kyle James O’Connor, Michael James Scott, Greg Stone, Katie Erin Tomlinson, Daniel Torres, Áine Uí Cheallaigh, Kathy Voytko, Jennifer Waiser, Briana Yacavone.
So what if, at times, it seems like the breeziest barnstormer of 1989? A return trip to the more electric past is a welcome vacation from the dreary present evinced by the likes of Grey Gardens, Spring Awakening, and Mary Poppins. Even when The Pirate Queen feels hokey (which it does sometimes), superannuated (which it does frequently), and overblown (which it does constantly), its stalwart confidence captures the electric and cinematic spirit of musical theatre at its freshest.
No, it's not Les Misérables. But as evidenced by the pallid revival at the Broadhurst, Les Misérables is no longer Les Misérables either. That show's writers, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, teaming up with their Miss Saigon cohort Richard Maltby, Jr., and John Dempsey, aren't trying to resuscitate the British pop opera they twice rode to astounding success, but rethink it for the Wicked generation. Given that Boublil and Schönberg's last new musical, Martin Guerre, was a self-immolating abomination that rightfully closed on its pre-Broadway tour, such reconsideration was likely wise.
It briefly looked as if The Pirate Queen might meet a similar fate. Its initial Chicago mounting last fall was met with poor reviews and word of mouth, and just recently stories continued to swirl about the show's taking on water, with producers Moya Doherty and John McColgan (of Riverdance notoriety) calling for last-minute rewrites and redesigns, and musical stager Graciela Daniele reportedly assisting the billed Frank Galati with directing chores.
As I missed the Chicago production, I can't say for sure that all the changes have been improvements. But their cumulative result, judging by what's now onstage, is dazzling. Not every moment scores, but with sumptuous scenic design by Eugene Lee, beguilingly gorgeous costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, and terrific storm's-a-brewin' lighting by Kenneth Posner, the story of quasi-legendary 16th-century Irish heroine Grace O'Malley explodes to life in one of the most satisfying and fully realized musical productions in several Broadway seasons.
Were the show merely about the endless tilting between the two, it could easily grate; indeed, the scenes focusing on Elizabeth's power-hungry envoy, Sir Richard Bingham (William Youmans), are the most trying. But the show, which librettists Boublil, Schönberg, and Maltby based on Morgan Llywelyn's novel Grania - She King of the Irish Seas, evokes some surprisingly compelling drama from the relationship between the two women, who live in very different circumstances but share more than they realize. Their secret second-act summit (based on actual events) doesn’t provide much of a climax for a hard-driving evening, but nonetheless makes for a quietly delectable culmination of uncertain historic events that had memorably human consequences.
The battles, the bombast, and especially the belting (which Block, an erstwhile Elphaba in Wicked, has down to an ear-piercing science) make you appreciate it all the more; like Les Misérables and Miss Saigon, The Pirate Queen is not a less-is-more type of show. This has some benefits - with 37 cast members, the dances by Daniele and Irish step choreographer Carol Leavy Joyce, especially a lavish wedding celebration, fill the stage as far too few today do - but causes the show to wear on you more quickly than others that better understand how to pace themselves.
An excess of nonspecific, empty staging, whether by Daniele or Galati, doesn't help; nor do throat-clenching numbers like the crushingly determined "Woman" for Grace or Tiernan's "I'll Be There" (which, despite its mawkish power-ballad provenance, Fraser makes a spectacular showstopper). A satiric series of harpsichord-tinged scenes for the Elizabethan court and a battle-of-the-sexes "Master of the House" rip-off called "Boys'll Be Boys" for Donal's bachelor shindig are more desperate than diversionary.
It's in numbers like the searching Grace-Elizabeth duet "She Who Has All" and the more anthemic offerings that the score finds its truest sound. When Schönberg's music shines, as it does most brightly in the theatrically charged "A Day Beyond Belclare" and "Sail to the Stars" late in Act I, it’s some of his very best work, with sweeping and intimate passages equally at home in the show's late-1500s setting and on 2007 Broadway. (Musical director Julian Kelly's smart orchestrations blend uilleann pipes and a Gaelic harp with keyboards, a fiddle, and a banjo.) Boublil, Maltby, and Dempsey's lyrics feel more facile and surface-level than the music, but don't find less depth than others of their ilk.
But compared to the season's other desultory lowlights, her work and the rest of the show are stunningly honest and heartfelt. It might be emotional truth on a grand, gaudy, and perhaps ungainly scale, but only recently have directors and producers tried to convince us that reality must be writ small. If The Pirate Queen only hearkens back 15-20 years, in its stripping away of so much artifice, even in the largest way imaginable, it's taking us just far enough.