I’ve just returned home from seeing the Broadway-bound production of the new musical, The Pirate Queen. It was written primarily by the team of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, who also wrote a little musical called Les Misérables. But before I get to the pirates, I want to talk about a little of the magic I referred to in the above title.
My friend Francesca walked over to the theater with me tonight. Her plan was to go off and work for several hours, then rejoin me after the show. I entered the theater with a ticket that corresponded to a seat in row S of the balcony. No sooner had I settled into my seat when the woman next to me nudged me. “I think that woman is waving at you,” she said. There was Francesca, standing in the aisle near the foot of the balcony, waving at me frantically. I excused myself and went down to meet her.
“Here,” she said, handing me a ticket, “now give me your ticket and we’ll trade.” She explained that moments after we had parted on Randolph Street, she had turned to walk away when a woman appeared before her and offered her a ticket to this very performance. The woman explained that her daughter had been unable to attend, and since the show was about to start, she had no way of selling the ticket and she didn’t want it to go to waste.
Francesca took the ticket from her and made her way up to the balcony to find me. She didn’t know exactly where I’d be sitting, but she knew I’d be near the back. As luck would have it, she had come up directly below my seat and had spotted me immediately. Since Francesca had already seen the show from an orchestra seat on opening night, she insisted that I take this seat, which was in row L of the main floor, second seat off the aisle, and a fabulous view of the show. So there’s some magic for you – and a big thank you to Francesca for making the trade with me. Special thanks also to another dear friend who gave me the original ticket! And while we’re at it, thanks to the mystery lady on Randolph Street!
Now as for those pirates . . .
I’m not going to offer any sort of comprehensive plot summary. Suffice it to say that PQ tells the story of a 16th century female pirate. It is loosely based on the story of a real-life person, Grace O’Malley, though a few main characters have been entirely fabricated, or have been drastically altered from the historic facts to suit the needs and whims of the writers.
The show is a treat in many, many ways. The talent is first-rate, particularly Stephanie J. Block in the title role and Jeff McCarthy as her pirate father, Dubhdara (quick name drop: I spent a month with Jeff in Greece in 2000. He played the lead role of Agamemnon in Iphigenia in Aulis. He's a terrific talent and a heck of a nice guy). The sets and costumes are gorgeous and beautifully lit. Those elements combine to create many lovely moments. Bouquets all around for those wonderful folks.
But now we come to the problem areas . . . Let’s start with Tiernan, the man Grace loves. He is played by Hadley Fraser, and it’s easy to see why he was cast. He’s a terrific singer and has teen heartthrob good looks (and believe me, the teenage girls were screaming for him tonight!). It pains me, really it does, to criticize such a talent, but criticize I must. Let me describe it this way: When we first came to know Tiernan early in the show and saw him flirting with young Grace, I couldn’t help thinking, “OK, so he’s her first love. He’ll probably be killed in a pirate battle and break her heart.” I didn’t think for a moment that he would prove to be the love of her life and go on to make profound sacrifices for her sake. The thing is, Fraser communicated a good deal of charisma in the role, but the role called for more than that. Tiernan, even though he is a mere peasant pirate, has to be played by someone who can deliver a heroic, soaring, heightened charisma. But as I said, I can see why they cast him. He does a lot right, but I think the role demands something more.
Another big problem is the score. Oh, it’s pleasant enough, I suppose. And some of the chorus numbers can send chills up your spine by virtue of their glorious arrangements and the glorious voices singing them. Let me put it this way: I’ve seen musicals where, even if I didn’t know any of the music before I walked in, I could walk out with 2 or 3 irresistible melodies stuck in my head. This show? Not a one. I suppose if I reduced my description of the score to one word, the word would be undistinguished.
There is probably a wonderful musical that could be inspired by the story of Grace O’Malley. But this isn’t it. It may be that Boublil and Schönberg have chosen a vehicle that is simply incompatible with their style. I suspect that this story might be better told through a simple, intimate production with a smaller cast and with music taken more directly from Celtic folk music, rather than the faux-operatic bombast employed here. That approach worked well in Les Miz, but PQ’s story and characters seem to lack the epic scope to support that approach.
But then again . . . it is a thrilling sight to see that testosterone-laden band of grimy pirates setting out toward adventure, illuminated by strobe-like flashes of lightning and cannon fire, as their harmonious cacophony of voices rises and falls with the waves of a stormy sea. So I had a great time tonight, and I don’t want to minimize that! In fact, just to be fair, I should mention that the show received a standing ovation from most of the audience. In addition, the male couple seated to my immediate right were overcome with sniffles when our two leads were reunited at the end of the show.