The Pirate Queen
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 14, 2007
My experience seeing The Pirate Queen was filled with if-onlys. If only the producers had fleshed out their original (truly wonderful!) concept and built this show as Riverdance-with-a-narrative instead of Les Miserables-goes-to-Ireland. If only they'd hired a young and adventurous fight choreographer like Rod Kinter or Carrie Brewer to bring life and vigor to the several swordfight/combat scenes. If only they'd made more use of the set (a captivatingly hulking pirate ship, designed by Eugene Lee) or seen fit to have more than just one tiny, fleeting aerial sequence (Paul Rubin and Foy are both credited in the program, but it's hard to see what they actually did). If only they'd realized that the remarkable Irish singer Aine Ui Cheallaigh was their strongest performing asset and given her a lot more to do.
If only they'd actually delivered on the promise of this show, giving us a heroine and telling us a story authentically feminist and authentically about pirates: the most baffling thing about The Pirate Queen is that not once do we see protagonist Grace (Grania) O'Malley do any pirating!
And yet, for all its flaws, The Pirate Queen is delivering something compelling to audiences, at least the one I was with (and I've heard this from others who have seen it). This is a crowd-pleaser. Maybe it's the utter lack of ambiguity: it's absolutely clear who the good guys are and who the bad guys are (and at the curtain call, the villains were booed and hissed, as at an oldtime melodrama). I would have liked a lot more Irish song and dance and a lot more swashbuckling fun, but it seems like most spectators are content with the lush romance of life, death, and betrayal that Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil, and their collaborators have concocted.
The story of The Pirate Queen is (very loosely) based on the life of O'Malley, a contemporary of Queen Elizabeth I. In the musical, Grania is the daughter of a powerful Irish chieftain who negotiates with another clan to try to stave off the increasing invasions from England. To this end, he marries Grania to Donal O'Flaherty, son and heir of the rival clan, and thus brings the two traditional enemies together. But there are complications: Grania longs to be a pirate, like her father, and has proven her power and leadership ability time and again. Also, Grania is in love with Tiernan, one of the men on her father's ship. Can she put all this aside to become a wife and mother?
The stakes are raised even higher as the English, led by dastardly Sir Richard Bingham, plot Ireland's conquest. Eventually Grania is captured, and it is only through the direct intervention of the pragmatic but also romantic Queen Elizabeth that she finally gains her freedom. The book of The Pirate Queen climaxes in a meeting between these two powerful women that supposedly makes them both heroic (I was not convinced).
The show, however, generates real sparks only when the ensemble takes wing, in a trio of dances celebrating significant rites of passage (a wedding, a funeral, a christening). These are choreographed by Riverdance alumna Carol Leavey Joyce, and they're magnificent though far too short. There are some excellent dancers in this company, and I longed to see them show off their considerable talents more than they were able to here. Another Riverdance veteran, the amazing singer Aine Ui Cheallaigh, plays a sort of mother/fairy godmother figure, and gets to sing parts of a few of the songs. She performs a cappella in a crystal-clear, beautiful voice full of strength and assurance. I longed for more of her, as well.
Stephanie J. Block (Grania), Linda Balgord (Elizabeth), Hadley Fraser (Tiernan), Marcus Chait (Donal), William Youmans (Bingham), and Jeff McCarthy (Grania's Father)—talented performers all—work hard to put over their own material, which is all less interesting and exciting than the stuff I've just told you about. I was particularly sorry for Block, whose character spends most of Act Two in prison: I had high hopes for a genuine female swashbuckling hero, but she's given precious little to do in the fighting, dancing, or cavorting departments. As for Balgord, her main job is to negotiate a dizzying array of spectacular gowns (designed by Martin Pakledinaz)—England's greatest queen as runway model.
So, yes, I was badly disappointed by what seemed to me a great concept and a whole lot of money squandered in a combination of risk aversion and lack of know-how. But I remain impressed by the show's ability to reach its audience, and so I guess the strategy, such as it is, is paying off.