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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

The Pirate Queen
Paradise Valley Community College

Also see Gil's review of The Book Club Play

(center) Andrew Lipman, Andrea Robertson and
Ken Goodenberger

The composer/lyricist team of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil had back to back global hits in the late 1980s with their scores for Les Misérables and Miss Saigon. Their attempts to find musical theatre success since then have failed miserably. The Pirate Queen, their only other musical ever to make it to Broadway, opened in April 2007. With the creators of Riverdance, they wrote a musical based on Irish legend Grace O'Malley, but the overblown production met with negative reviews from critics and ran for less than three months.

Paradise Valley Community College's Director of Theatre Andrea Robertson, having liked the music for The Pirate Queen as well as the historical context of the story, thought it would be interesting to produce a show by two very well-known composers that no one else had been able to present. She went through the process of securing the rights to this currently unlicensed show, working with Schönberg and Boublil's representatives, and is now not only producing but also starring in what has become the first U.S. staging of the show since the Broadway production.

Set in Ireland in the 1600s, determined Grace O'Malley, disguising herself as a boy, defies her pirate father Dubhdara and manages to secure her way aboard his ship. When a storm threatens the boat, she single handedly saves it, proving her worth to her widowed father. Later, on her father's request, Grace agrees to marry Donal, the son of the Chieftain of a rival Irish clan to strengthen the two clans and to show they trust each other, thus betraying her true love from childhood, Tiernan. Meanwhile, across the sea in England, Queen Elizabeth I is humiliated by Grace's clan's attacks on the English fleet and sends Lord Richard Bingham to seize control, which ultimately builds to a confrontation in the second act between Pirate Queen Grace and the Queen of England herself. With two strong-willed women at the helm, The Pirate Queen is a musical full of soaring ballads and songs of determination that portray the deep love for one's country, the strong emotions of separated lovers Grace and Tiernan, the rich genuine history behind the battles, and the ultimate meeting between Grace and Queen Elizabeth I.

The reason the show failed and the flaws of The Pirate Queen are very apparent. The through-sung nature of the score, similar to the other Schönberg and Boublil shows, which eliminates virtually all dialogue, makes some of the plot points and settings of the scenes confusing. While the score includes several attractive ballads and the history behind the story of Grace is intriguing, there are several similar sounding numbers, some clunky tunes and sung dialogue with underscoring that is repetitive. And, unlike a blockbuster film with a pirate or historical theme, there really is no way to accurately portray elaborate sword fights and battles across the decks of two ships on a stage. However, while the majority of the score sounds somewhat reminiscent of other Schönberg and Boublil shows, especially another one of their flops, Martin Guerre, and while several of the ballads are similar in nature, even a lesser score from these two composers is worth paying attention to and better than many of the new musical scores out there. This is a case of a show where the pros just slightly outweigh the cons and Robertson's determination allows Phoenix residents the chance to see a show that not too many people in the U.S. have seen.

This production has more than capable actors in the leads, with the cast made up of actors from the school and faculty as well as from the community. Robertson brings an Irish earthiness to Grace, making her appropriately strong, feisty and athletic. But she also easily portrays the soft side of this larger than life character and the love she has for both her father and Tiernan. Robertson has a legit voice that, while not making the songs soar to the rafters the way that Stephanie J. Block did in the role on Broadway, gives them a more realistic, grounded delivery. Her expressions are also perfectly conveyed, whether they be the sheer joy of being on the deck of a ship and using her sword to fight or those of a sullen nature when she is basically forced to marry a man she doesn't love.

Ken Goodenberger has a gorgeous voice that makes Tiernan's songs soar, and he has several. He and Robertson have good chemistry, making their romantic relationship realistic. Goodenberger's stage presence, facial expressions and body language when he is around Grace or her husband accurately portray a man who is in love with a woman yet cannot be with her. Andrew Lipman as Grace's father Dubhdara delivers an emotionally grounded performance with a deep, rich singing voice that brings resonance to the relationship he has with Grace, his people, and with Ireland. The fact that Lipman's performance is exceptional is especially noteworthy as he was a last minute replacement for an actor who suffered an accident, and Lipman had less than a week of rehearsal time. If you saw Lipman providing plenty of comical moments just a few weeks back in the Mesa Encore Production of The Full Monty, or Big River in April, this is a nice chance to see him show his serious and emotional side.

Alexandra Melikian makes Queen Elizabeth appropriately emotionless and icy, yet manages to elicit a nice sensitive resonance in her scenes with Grace in the second act. Her English accent comes and goes a bit, but isn't too much of an issue since there is very little spoken dialogue. Peter J. Oldak makes Donal a fittingly drunk womanizer, and the lack of emotion between him and Robertson's Grace is appropriate, since they clearly don't love or even like each other. Jeffrey Middleton is fantastic as Elizabeth's conniving adviser Bingham, with superb delivery of his lines and songs. Also of note is Jacque Hemstreet who sings several lovely solos, including one that I believe is completely in Gaelic.

Director Gary Zaro provides a swift moving production, which says a lot with such a fairly large cast, numerous set pieces, and an abundance of scene changes. His leads are up to the challenge of this through-sung show and he provides nice ensemble work, especially in how he portrays them doing activities like the ship's busy work in the background of the scenes on the boat, as well as in the ensemble work in the fight scenes that Robertson directed. Zaro has staged the scenes effectively, not just using the center stage, though his direction of the funeral scene, where a boat carrying a body is lit on fire and sent off to sea, could be slightly better staged to have the ensemble move away from the boat toward the end of the scene to portray it moving out to the water. As it is now, the ensemble is so close it seems like they would easily catch on fire as well.

While some of Lisa Gray Young's choreography seems slightly out of context to the time of the play, the "Rah-Rah, Tip-Top" number in particular, she more than makes up for that with spirited Irish themed dance sequences at Grace's wedding and the christening of Grace's child. The dancing ensemble is superb in navigating the tricky dance movement. Goodenberger also provides the musical direction for the show and, under Reynaldo Saenz' superb conducting, the eleven-piece orchestra is pretty phenomenal. The tight musical accompaniment with superb fiddle playing by Kaylee Cumpston and the musical underscore that provides lovely echoes of harpsichord and bagpipes in the synthesizer sequencing is simply amazing and lush.

The scenic design by Erik Reid uses two sets of steps and several moving set pieces and drops to move us from scene to scene. The use of large photo projections of the sky, stars and the Irish countryside on the back wall of the stage help in setting the location, which is greatly needed since the book rarely lets us know where we are supposed to be. Tamara Treat's costume design provides a parade of lush period-appropriate costumes, with some knock out dresses for Elizabeth. Leigh Treat's second act hair and make-up design for Elizabeth is splendid. Colin Carter's sound design has most of the leads appropriately mic'd but the ensemble cast was somewhat hard to hear and muddied at times and there were numerous microphone pops at the performance I attended. Hopefully these issues can easily be remedied with more performances under their belts.

So, while The Pirate Queen isn't on the same level as Schönberg and Boublil's two hit shows, and is far from a perfect musical, the score does have its merits and the PVCC production has competent leads, lush costumes, swift direction, and a spectacular orchestra. So if you missed this show on Broadway, are an admirer of Schönberg and Boublil's other shows, are a fan of lush scores, or are just curious to see what this Broadway flop show was like, I'd recommend taking a journey with this Pirate Queen, as you never know if it will ever set sail again.

The Paradise Valley Community College production of The Pirate Queen runs through June 29th, 2014 at the PVCC Center for the Performing Arts, 18401 North 32nd Street in Phoenix. Tickets can be ordered at or by calling (602) 787-7738

Book by Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Richard Maltby Jr., based on the novel "Grania — She King of the Irish Seas" by Morgan Llywelyn; music by Claude-Michel Schönberg; lyrics by Alain Boublil, Richard Maltby Jr. and John Dempsey
Director: Gary Zaro
Choreographer: Lisa Gray Young
Producer/Fight Director: Andrea Robertson
Musical Director: Ken Goodenberger
Lighting and Set Designer: Erik Reid
Costume Designer: Tamara Treat
Hair/Makeup Designer: Leigh Treet
Sound Designer: Colin Carter
Stage Manager: Kendra Rae Lytle

Grace O'Malley: Andrea Robertson
Tiernan: Ken Goodenberger
Queen Elizabeth I: Alexandra Melikian
Donal O'Flaherty: Peter J. Oldak
Dubhdara: Andrew Lipman
Lord Richard Bingham: Jeffrey Middleton
Evleen: Jacque Hemstreet
Majella: Susan St. John
Chieftain O'Flaherty: Eric Thrasher
Eoin: Troy Zaro
Male Ensemble: Hayden Domenico, AJ Farrimond, Alex Hansen, Kevin Lopez, Arman McLaughlin, Eric Thrasher, Troy Zaro
Female Ensemble: Jen Blom, Mickenzie Collins, BreAwna Harpe, Carrie Hemstreet, Emma Hemstreet, Leann Tegl, Leigh Treat, Delaney Welch

Photo: Tiffany Bolock

--Gil Benbrook

Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix

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