Lush melodies, soulful scenery and an occasional jolt of Irish step-dancing don’t do enough to lift “The Pirate Queen,” the newest musical from “Les Miserables” and “Miss Saigon” creators Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg. The show, playing in a Chicago warm-up before moving to Broadway in March, promises a more emotional experience than the current climate of jukebox musicals and Disney film adaptations. But despite great singing, it fails fundamentally to create characters deep enough to engage an audience in its too-tepid love story.
Teamed with the producers of Riverdance, Boublil and Schonberg struggle mightily to re-create the formula that brought them such commercial success in prior decades. Out of the story of true-life 16th century Irish chieftain Grace O’Malley (here called Grania), they concoct a sweeping tale of love set in a political context, mixing musical influences with the help of Gaelic pipes and whistles. While one can hear plenty of sounds that immediately bring “Les Miz” to mind, particularly when the cast of 40 sing simultaneously, much of Schonberg’s scoring is also reminiscent of James Horner’s music for the film “Titanic,” another enterprise that sold a few tickets.
But the plotting and characterizations are sorely lacking. The show creates a couple of potentially strong female roles in Grania (Stephanie Block) and her English counterpart, Queen Elizabeth I (Linda Balgord). But nobody here quite knows what to do with them beyond sticking them with stock male figures straight out of melodrama. Until they come face to face late in the show, both these characters have been awaiting a foil with enough personality to bring them to life. In the meantime, they’re little more than typical plucky heroine and steely monarch-in-the-making.
Frank Galati (“Ragtime”) directs a production that unquestionably looks beautiful, with the design team of Eugene Lee, Martin Pakledinaz and Kenneth Posner contrasting the naturally spare, misty, stony landscape of western Ireland with the over-the-top formalities of the English court.
The story begins as young Grania, forbidden from sailing by her chieftain father Dubhdara (a powerful performance from Jeff McCarthy), dresses as a boy to get aboard his ship and soon proves herself in a well-staged sequence where she courageously takes down a sail in the midst of a storm.
By the third song in this sung-through show, she has fallen in love with Tiernan, a handsome man with no noticeable characteristics beyond his faithful affection for Grania and, played by Hadley Frasier, a tenor voice that could make any heart melt. His song “I’ll Be There” soars in the middle of the first act and seems likely to become an audition standard.
While the title would suggest some swashbuckling adventures, the pirate queen is presented here as a genuine ruler fighting for her land and people, not a female version of Captain Jack. Beset by the English, who seek to take full control of Ireland, Grania must choose between her love for Tiernan and a strategic marriage that will unite two clans. She chooses duty and finds herself married to Donal (Marcus Chait), who signals his intentions to be a terrible husband with the song “Boys’ll Be Boys.”
That song also provides the first opportunity for some Riverdance alumni to step-dance, which always brings the show to life.
Donal proves a most cowardly, chauvinistic nincompoop. He ultimately betrays Grania to Lord Bingham (William Youmans), who similarly plays the role of chauvinistic nincompoop on the English side. Such one-dimensional figures would be acceptable if they weren’t quite so central to a serious plotline. Their shallowness makes it awfully hard to depict with any depth the true challenges that Grania or Elizabeth faced as female leaders.
While Tiernan does step forward as a heroic, if still generic, figure by sacrificing his freedom for Grania’s, the only time the show really creates any true chemistry comes when the two queens finally meet to hash out their differences. Even here, however, Boublil and Schonberg scurry away from the details of their negotiations to manufacture a happy ending with the mushy message that women should seek love above all but can also solve the political problems of the world with a quick sit-down.
Still, even if the emotional content of their songs never emerges with authenticity, Block and Balgord are exceptionally potent singers, and their duets form a forceful musical climax.
There’s plenty to work to do and not a lot of time between this run and the scheduled Broadway engagement. Lame sword fights must be addressed and can certainly be fixed in time, and the show really could use at least one additional dance number.
But the problems run deeper. Boosting superficial elements can help shows that seek to be escapist entertainments, but the more ambitious “Pirate Queen” is in trouble unless its love story can find true romance.