When a pop culture throwback appears earnestly unaware of how firmly its style and conception are rooted in another era, is it retro or just outmoded? The lumbering epic “The Pirate Queen” comes down on the latter side. As “Les Miserables” creators Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg showed with their last excursion into romantically embroidered 16th century historical tapestry, the commercially ill-fated “Martin Guerre,” the French composing team’s bombastic 1980s megamusical formula now sits stodgily onstage. Their all-plot, no-heart new show is persuasively sung by a valiant cast, yet it never forges an emotional connection with the audience.
Show doctors were enlisted after the tepid critical reception to Frank Galati’s production during its tryout run in Chicago last fall. Richard Maltby Jr. was tasked with strengthening the book and lyrics, Graciela Daniele with beefing up the musical staging, reportedly pushing the already hefty pricetag north of $16 million. Oddly, though, it’s less the creative team than producers Moya Doherty and John McColgan who are responsible for the show’s distinguishing element.The husband-and-wife partners were behind “Riverdance,” which pounded almost as many international stages through the 1990s as Boublil and Schonberg’s monster hits did during the previous decade. But despite that phenomenon being perhaps the world’s most over-exposed commercialization of traditional Irish culture, the too-infrequent explosions of step-dancing — during a wedding, a funeral and a christening — are the only times “The Pirate Queen” really comes alive. Whoever thought they’d be waiting impatiently for the next Celtic kickline?
Their torsos rigid while their scissoring legs slice the air, alternating between flying leaps and tight formations as their feet hammer the boards, the dancers (many of them “Riverdance” alumni) display a driving energy that points up the absence of similar visceral thrills elsewhere.
The title of Morgan Llywelyn’s source novel, “Grania — She King of the Irish Seas,” promises high camp with eye patches, earrings, peg-legs and maybe even a parrot. Alas, no, it’s all far more serious. The musical traces the life of Irish seafaring warrior Grace “Grania” O’Malley (Stephanie J. Block), who died in 1603. Bulging with cumbersome exposition, it covers the proto-feminist path of not just one woman in a man’s domain but also of a second, Queen Elizabeth I (Linda Balgord). The show has plenty of romance, adventure, battles, royal court intrigue and the erosion of a proud traditional culture, yet somehow it remains mostly inert.
Act one is especially belabored. Grace defies her widowed pirate chieftain father, Dubhdara (Jeff McCarthy), by disguising herself as a boy to slip aboard his ship, proving herself a formidable sailor when she saves the vessel during a storm. Betraying a love that blossomed from childhood with crewmate Tiernan (Hadley Fraser), Grace agrees to a strategic marriage to Donal (Marcus Chait), the scion of a rival clan, easily identified by the size of his codpiece as a philandering scoundrel. Fatally wounded in battle, Dubhdara bucks tradition and angers Donal by naming Grace his successor.
Across the Irish Sea, Elizabeth is rankled by Grace and crew’s continuing humiliation of her fleet. She dispatches conniving Sir Richard Bingham (William Youmans, in a villainous turn with all the subtlety of Snidely Whiplash) to seize control.
All this unfolds over a monotonous first hour, alleviated by the dance segs and some pleasing vocal work on a largely unmemorable score laced with Uilleann pipes, harp, flute and Irish fiddles. There are about 15 I-pledge, I-vow, I-swear songs too many, but Fraser’s powerfully emotional tenor sets apart “I’ll Be There.” Also vocally accomplished, Block makes a feisty, attractive lead, but all the characters remain bland cutouts suffocated by plot.
The show builds toward a Krystal vs. Alexis-type showdown between Grace and the imperious Elizabeth (played by Balgord with icy stiffness and a cutting semi-operatic soprano). Fueled by their rivalry and the mutual admiration of two rebellious women who have stepped outside their prescribed roles, this section does provide some belated emotional involvement. The clean staging of the women’s duet, “She Who Has All,” with light streaming in on them from single windows high above, is striking. But the writers cheat by playing the decisive meeting largely as a closed-door conversation behind a screen and the woman-to-woman truce feels simplistic.
Schonberg’s score generally strives too hard for stirring moments, inducing so many blustery crescendos from the start that it has no place to build. Galati’s staging under-uses the aerial opportunities of the ship’s masts and rigging while rarely milking much excitement from the swordplay.
Eugene Lee’s sets are elaborate but visually uninteresting, with too many vividly hued skyscape backdrops. Martin Pakledinaz’s detailed costumes are more successful, with the fan-collared, heavily upholstered Elizabethan garb providing plenty of scope for ornate excess.
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. It’s a relief in this context to be jarred out of boredom by the crotch-thrusting, hip-grinding vulgarity and innuendo-drenched lyrics (“I may well have to beach her/Take her inland to teach her”) of Chait’s act-one song, “Boys’ll Be Boys” — a raucous pub number filled with lusty lads and brassy tarts, which corresponds precisely to “Master of the House” in “Les Miz.” Elsewhere, this is a plodding Harlequin historical romance. For all its inflamed passions, it never ignites.