Swashbuckling, sword fighting, scurvy scallywag. Sounds more like “Pirates of the Caribbean” than Pinter. But “The Pirate Queen,” which opened April 5 at the Hilton Theater in New York City, attempts to prove that these elements are just as valid in the theater as they are on screen, with mixed success.
Set in 16th-century Ireland, “The Pirate Queen” follows the headstrong Grace O’Malley (Stephanie J. Block), the daughter of a prominent clan chief who longs to follow her father, her lover (Hadley Fraser) and the other men of the clan to the sea. Instead, she sacrifices her “unfeminine” aspirations and her longtime love in order to marry the chauvinist leader of a rival clan (Marcus Chait), hoping to unite the two groups against the threat of British attacks led by Queen Elizabeth I (Linda Balgord). The spotlight focuses on Grace and Elizabeth, two women who, having made enemies by their opposing national identities, are united in the atypical strength they wield in a society dominated by men.
Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, the team responsible for the lyrics and music, respectively, of Broadway hits “Les Misérables” and “Miss Saigon,” continue in the style that made them Tony-winning superstars. “The Pirate Queen” is almost entirely through-composed, with recitative-like sung dialogue leading to impassioned solo numbers conceptually reminiscent of operatic arias. While this technique succeeds to a certain extent in earlier works, notably “Les Miz,” here it carries little of the emotional depth it previously conveyed. The awkward setting of the dialogue with the music contributes to this fault; the musical rhythms and tunes do not complement the lyrics but run contrary to the natural spoken rhythms of the text, disjointing it to the realm of affectation.
The book, written by Boublil and Schonberg, also constitutes a step back from their previous works; this is somewhat predictable, as “Les Miz” has the substantial advantage of being based on the Victor Hugo novel. The parallel narratives of Grace and Elizabeth are interesting in theory, but they flounder in the relative one-dimensionality of each woman: Grace is the ultimate martyr, while Elizabeth serves as her evil foil, making her last-minute character shift implausible. It proves difficult for the audience to elicit emotion for her when finally called to do so.
The cast, although consistently strong, simply can’t overcome these weaknesses. Block is emotionally invested in her portrayal of the strong-willed but kind-hearted Grace. Her vocal chops are well-suited to the character’s dual nature; not only is Block’s sound strikingly powerful, as one would expect from the star of the national tour of the hit musical “Wicked,” but it also adapts surprisingly well to the higher range required to reflect Grace’s more tender, hidden side.
Chait and Fraser have similarly commanding presences and equally powerful voices. At times, Fraser even overwhelms Block, ironically eclipsing the supposedly dominant heroine. But due to the forgettable nature of Schonberg’s solo and duet numbers, all three figures are barely memorable after the curtain falls. Although in their sentimentality and lyrical melodies the songs of “The Pirate Queen” are clearly modeled after the tunes of Schonberg’s previous blockbusters, they are indistinguishable, almost all of them forgettable.
The exceptions are the choral pieces delivered by a sometimes piercingly overenthusiastic ensemble of 36; these often have a more specific cultural flavor than the monotonous power-pop ballads of the major characters, adding hints of harp and uilleann pipes to the standard Broadway orchestral sound.
This historical and cultural setting, however, is short-lived; one moment the strains of a Gaelic harp fill the theater, only to be jarringly interrupted by an electric guitar. The design elements of “The Pirate Queen” are a similar blend of the historic and the contemporary; the stage is framed by wooden planks painted to evoke the starry sky in the style of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, famous during Grace’s time. This self-conscious antiquation stands in stark contrast to the bombastic and clearly modern lighting and stage effects, which include pain-inducing cannon fires. Even more cringe-worthy is the dissimilarity between the archaic stage set and the Hilton Theater itself, whose opulent modern design includes display cases of “memorabilia” from the most famous hotels in the chain.
“The Pirate Queen” is at its best when it ceases its attempts to pander to the taste for superficial pop/rock-opera that has recently saturated Broadway and instead delves into the culture from which the story springs. The wedding ballet, a ten-minute sequence of ‘Riverdance’-inspired choreography, is a thrilling and joyful spectacle that garnered the biggest applause of the night. It’s no surprise that the show is produced by the minds behind ‘Riverdance’; the blatant cultural elements that popularized the stage show fare well. When the Irish chieftains are called to relinquish their crowns, their downhearted procession is the show’s most poignant moment, a testament to the strength of the production’s cultural aspects and the weakness of other, plot-based elements.
With this dominance of culture and spectacle over story, “The Pirate Queen” heralds the prevalence of a different kind of theater, one more aligned with principles of cinema than with the older Broadway days. And, despite our unwillingness to shell out the exorbitant $10, compared to the theater, a movie is a steal.