Review by Andrea Carpenter
Those looking for another dose of girl power on Broadway following the sisterhood of Wicked have probably eyed The Pirate Queen with interest.
The show from musical heavyweights Alan Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, creators of Les Miserables and Miss Saigon, pitches 16th century Irish Chieftain Grace Oï¿½Malley against Queen Elizabeth I as the former fights for clan and country under the repression of the English monarch. In this retelling of a story based on historical events, Oï¿½Malley swash buckles her way up the ranks of a manï¿½s world while making sacrifices in her personal life with the loss of her betrothed. Her ruthless reputation eventually gets her the ear of the Queen, resulting in a face-to-face diplomatic meeting.
I have to start with the production values for this musical as the lighting, scenic design and costumes thoroughly deserve a top billing. The lighting is just gorgeous as the back stage is awash with sumptuous hues of red, purple, orange and creating atmospheric backdrops for the sea and the sky, which firmly sets the look and feel of the production.
The staging starts from an empty stage with the ship being created from a combination of drop down masts and moveable props. It is a simple approach which results in a modern and original look and adds to the energy as the cast scramble over the set on the high seas.
The staging for the court of Queen Elizabeth I is more traditional but even then there are lovely touches such as Her Majesty rising from the floor like a spinning figurine in a music box. Queen Elizabethï¿½s costumes are lavish and appropriately large while the box-bottomed dresses of the giggling courtiers just add the right fanciful touch.
For Les Mis fan devotees, the Pirate Queen will be no disappointment. The stirring score once again inspires the under classes to rise up and this time it is the Irish clansmen and women that march up to the front of stage and posture in rousing ensemble songs. The Gaelic undertones to the score are a welcome touch without being overdone, giving a soft lilting feel to the ballads.
I do have problems with the narrative and was left feeling that this story did the lead female characters a disservice. There is a sweet spot when the characters meet in the moving ï¿½Woman to Womanï¿½ but this is the only time the plot seeks to find a connection between these two women who would surely have shared similarities in a time when women had no power?
The opportunity is a missed one partly due to misplaced humour in the piece. Somehow, we are not meant to be amused (if my eyes didnï¿½t deceive me) by Grace and her female friends winning a battle against the English by seducing them in some kind of group sex scene. Yet, Sir Richard Bingham, described as the ï¿½one of the most ruthless representativesï¿½ ever dispatched to Ireland is portrayed as pantomime villain giving unnecessary light relief with the Queen when there was a need for more insight.
The Queen is as anti-female as the rest of the characters (a point which is laboured home in the first act) giving us no signals as to what will eventually link our two heroines. And later, in one of many quick plot turnarounds, the Queen agrees to Graceï¿½s demands only because she recognises that the Grace has the love of a good man. Not exactly one for the feminist movement, particularly as history tells us that Elizabeth ï¿½ the Virgin Queen ï¿½ remained chaste so as to never be under the power of a man.
Stephanie J Block is a gutsy Grace and rises effortlessly to the many powerful solos with style, although the jumping plot sometimes throws up questions as to how they have got to these emotional highs. Linda Balgord brings the petulant Queen to life with her confident vibrato and a stage presence to match her oversized costumes.
A good measure of Irish dancing brings energy and life into the production meaning that there is much to enjoy in all parts of the production. However, it ends up being more of a night out for the senses rather than the brain.
What the press had to say.....
BEN BRANTLEY of THE NEW YORK TIMES: ï¿½Many and exhausting are the physical activities that occupy the long hours of ï¿½The Pirate Queen,ï¿½ the loud and restless musical..." & "Everything ultimately blurs into what feels like the aimless milling of a crowd on a carnival midway. The operating theory behind ï¿½The Pirate Queenï¿½ would appear to be taken from an appropriately ocean-themed bit of zoology: if, like a shark, it never stops moving, then it will stay alive. The optimism is misplaced."
JOE DZIEMIANOWICZ of NEW YORK DAILY NEWS: "A chorus line of flexible, well-oiled ankles can't elevate "The Pirate Queen" from being an ornate but empty treasure chest."
CLIVE BARNES of THe NEW YORK POST: "Apart from the repetitive and self-congratulatory music, the only major flaws in the show are the basically banal lyrics and sung-through book...'The Pirate Queen' capsizes and sinks"
MICHAEL SOMMERS of STAR-LEDGER: "Turns out to be a big, lumbering affair that sinks into a sea of boredom. Ceaselessly jigging hordes of hoofers, scads of 16th-century costumes and vigorous performances can't compensate for a crude script and a flat-line score from "Les Miz"-makers Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schï¿½nberg. Look -- gasp -- Irish step-dancers actually using their arms! That's about as exciting as this busy spectacle ever gets."
ELYSA GARDNER of USA TODAY: "The cast deserves better, as do the tourists and casual fans whom The Pirate Queen aims to seduce. I'd advise the latter to catch a community-theater staging of an old musical instead. You'll spare yourself 2ï¿½ hours of tedium ï¿½ and I'm not talking about the commute."
JACQUES LE SOURD of THE JOURNAL NEWS: "Merely recycle sounds, word patterns and even groupings of people in rags from their earlier show. The score sounds like 'Les Miz' Lite. The script is like a comic book for 5-year-olds." & "This ship sinks without a trace."
ZACHARY PINCUS-ROTH of NEWSDAY: "Goes out of its way to be dramatically inert." & "Whatever alchemy made 'Les Miz' so magical simply doesn't exist here."
ERIC GRODE of the NEW YORK SUN: " 'The Pirate Queen' misses by a nautical mile. An indifferently constructed blend of period pageantry, power ballads, and battle-of-the-sexes pandering, this soggy melodrama does little to stir the pulse, to say nothing of rehabilitating the rusty image of the pop opera."
JOHN SIMON of BLOOMBERG: "What of the music? If you liked Boublil and Schonberg's previous shows -- or even if you didn't -- you'll find them unabashedly recycled here. Close your eyes and forget the lyrics (lots of luck!), and you can set sail for Saigon or Paris with ease. It is music from the team of meat grinder and cookie cutter, vaguely operatic and only barely operational."
MICHAEL KUCHWARA of ASSOCIATED PRESS: "A dry history lesson, a musical that presents the past in such a perfunctory manner that Grace O'Malley sinks in a sea of ordinary."
DAVID ROONEY of VARIETY: "The sad realization of watching 'The Pirate Queen' is not that it's especially bad, but that despite its dense action and wealth of conflict (both of the heart and the sword), it's dull...For all its inflamed passions, it never ignites."
External links to full reviews from newspapers