Monday, October 30, 2006

The Pirate Queen (The SOB Review) – Cadillac Palace Theatre, Chicago, IL

The Pirate Queen (The SOB Review) – Cadillac Palace Theatre, Chicago, IL

** (out of ****)

Last evening, the official world premiere The Pirate Queen opened on its course toward Broadway. What was surely intended to be an audacious debut for the Frank Galati-helmed spectacle often seemed much more like a spectacular dual-edged retread.

Think Les Misérables meets Riverdance as ships passing in the night (only there were no actual ships unless you count the remarkably small scale model trotted out during one of the few battle scenes). No surprise, the songwriting team for Les Mis -- Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg -- co-wrote the book for this tuner (Schönberg also composed the Celtic-tinged power ballad music while Boublil co-wrote the lyrics with John Dempsey). Meanwhile, the same Riverdream that created the dancing cliché known better as Riverdance produced The Pirate Queen -- and yes, there was an healthy abundance of the obligatory Irish step-dancing.

The show is ostensibly about a real-life 16th Century Irish woman’s struggle for love and her native land against the threat of domination from England’s first Queen Elizabeth. Nearly all of the production is sung operetta-style. Yet the jumbled storytelling made it easy to forget that this was as much about her struggle and assumption of leadership as the love she was forced to abandon in order to unite the clans of Ireland. Unfortunately, the story was told much more coherently in the Playbill synopsis that it was on the stage.

I wanted so desperately to like this new musical, but found myself laughing at some key plot points (like Grania’s postpartum sword fight) while wondering how something so visually arresting could still be so predictable and ultimately boring. That’s not to say it was all bad; indeed, a significant slice of the opening night audience seemed to eat it up. Certainly, if the critically-savaged Tarzan can still attract an audience capacity of over 75%, there’s probably room on the Great White Way for this.

On the plus side, The Pirate Queen is loaded with actors with great pipes, yet it was extremely difficult for this audience member to decipher much of what was being sung. Thank goodness again for that story synopsis.

Among those who had no trouble enunciating perfectly was Stephanie J. Block, who’s finally given a well-deserved star turn. She doesn’t disappoint as the titular Irish Pirate Queen Grace “Grania” O’Malley. She transcends the storyline she’s given by turning in a solid and often breathtaking performance, even if the material is often reminiscent of the soundtrack for the movie “Titanic” -- Céline Dion herself could not have sounded better, yet I half expected Block to belt out “My Heart Will Go On.”

There’s no denying the beauty of the singing offered by both Hadley Fraser (who played Grania’s true love interest Tiernan) and Jeff McCarthy (who played Grania’s ill-fated father Dubhdara), yet the latter inexplicably enjoys a robust voice right up until the moment his character expires; perhaps that works in opera, but it was hardly believable here. Just as ridiculous was the plethora of super-buff bodies in the chorus looking ripped from the Chippendales -- hardly the physique of a crew of pirates from the late 1500s. Even more unbelievable were the number of Irish blondes -- including Marcus Chait, who portrays the philandering lout Donal, whom Grania is forced to marry to save Ireland -- and even one black Irish that recalls a certain politically incorrect joke from The Producers.

Credit must be given to Martin Pakledinaz for a highly creative costume design -- his handiwork for Queen Elizabeth grew more outrageous with each scene. Eugene Lee also deserves a nod for once again conceiving a gorgeous set design, yet I couldn’t help but wondering where the $15 million was squandered if this truly is the singular most expensive Broadway-bound musical ever mounted. Unlike Boublil and Schönberg’s earlier mega-musicals that featured iconic set designs -- Les Mis’ turntable stage and Miss Saigon’s helicopter -- there is nary a memorable special effect to be seen unless you count Howard Werner’s entrancing projection design on display just as the curtain rises.

Can The Pirate Queen be ship-shape in time for Broadway? Possibly. Fortunately for Galati and company, the musical heads to dry dock for several months after it closes in Chicago on November 26 before beginning previews at the Hilton Theatre on March 2. But it will take a lot of work to ready this ship for its ultimate journey.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.
Related Stories:
The Pirate Queen Sails Into Chicago Opening Tonight (October 29, 2006)
Pirate Queen to Sail Into Broadway's Hilton Theatre (July 27, 2006)
The Pirate Queen Musical to Sail Into Chicago This Fall (May 15, 2006)

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At 30 October, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said Steve. I’ve been waiting for you to review this one, as none of my theater buddys wanted to see PQ. So I went alone. I saw the 3rd preview. I’m not a big fan of Boublil/ Schönberg, but I was interested in seeing this giant show develop in my adopted home town... I AM a fan of Frank Galati and Eugene Lee; I hoped for the brilliant staging of Ragtime on a set with Mr. Lee's genius and the Riverdance money behind it all. I was shocked at the lack of a giant pirate ship for everybody to fly up and down the masts of, swords in hand, belting out pirate anthems. How was the sword fighting? It should be earth shatteringly scary I think… the SOUND of the swords hitting each other should frighten us. I hear they started flying the masts (the masts anchored to the stage without the ship around them) during the swordfights since I saw it… How did that play? Are the actors having fun yet? And what about the pivotal final act scene between Grace and Elizabeth written to be staged BEHIND A SCREEN? Are they still doing that??? And where is the Boublil/ Schönberg ANTHEM? Has one emerged? Can you hum any of the tunes from last night today?
I too wanted to like this show… I, at least, wanted to want to go back again before it left for NYC… Sadly, I will not be returning to Pirate Queen unless someone gives me a comp…

At 30 October, 2006, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...


With your comments, it's almost as if you had joined our post-opening night conversation!!

Where was that large pirate ship, indeed?

Enhanced sword fighting? AWOL.

Secret conversations behind a screen? Still there, sad to say.

Rousing anthemic number? Well, Stephanie J. Block's song-on-a-rock reclaiming her status as a woman to be reckoned with came close, but to answer your question, "No, I can't remember any of the tunes." I keep hearing Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" from Titanic instead.

In summary, all I can add is that it's shows like this that make me appreciate truly great theatre.


At 31 October, 2006, Blogger Michael Lehet said...

Great review Steve....the only song going through my head is the opening from Les Miz!

Kudo's to you for sitting all the way through that show, you have more patience than we did (and we have Season Tickets)

At 31 October, 2006, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...


Appreciate your comments!

During this sold-out opening night, there were several seats nearby that went empty in the second act. But I stuck around - there have been quite a few shows where the second act has been able to pull it together for me. But alas, this was not one of them.



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