Top 5 Reasons to see The Pirate Queen, the new Broadway musical about legendary 16th-century Irish chieftain Grace 'Grania' O'Malley:
1. Choreographer Carol Leavy Joyce has staged some fine Riverdance-style Irish dance numbers.
2. The marvelous Áine Uí Cheallaigh, the original Riverdance vocalist, gets in a couple of sean nós songs: she's a treasure and a delight on the ears.
3. Stephanie J. Block in the title role of Grania/Grace O'Malley has the pipes of a goddess, and a fiery charm.
4. At the beautiful Hilton Theatre you can bring your coffee and snacks to your seat.
5. It may well go down in history as a legendary flop, and this is your chance to experience that moment in time.
I would list the top five reasons not to see this show, but unfortunately, I'm a little spoiled for choice. This is not to say that it's impossible to enjoy the show; in all fairness, there were cheers and standing ovations at the performance I attended. The show is corny, too long, sprawling and very disappointing, but there are some good numbers. The cast have charm and give their best, the scenery, particularly the sunset seascapes (scenic design by the notable Eugene Lee and lighting design by Kenneth Posner) has grandeur. The show means well, and there's a case to be made for supporting it just to ensure the producers, Moya Doherty and John McColgan, who brought us Riverdance, might bring us another, better, Irish Broadway musical down the road. But first, they'll have to hire talent better matched to the material.
The problem largely has to be put at the doors of the creative team recruited by Doherty and McColgan: Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, the creators of Les Misérables and Miss Saigon, who do not, it appears, know how to structure and fill out a catchy Broadway show – or even, apparently, tell a good story in a compelling manner. Their calling card is epic grandeur and sung-through musicals. That's what this is, and it's a style that doesn't fit the material. This story of a 16th-century female Irish chieftain, rooted in legend and based on a real figure, suggests something grand, but it doesn't mesh well with the overly earnest, faux-operatic style Boublil and Schönberg bring to the table. What they deliver are many episodes with a lot of power ballads but without a central story question. The songs are boring, the story is flabby, the melodies forgettable, the lyrics (by Boublil and John Dempsey, with last-minute emergency treatment from 'show doctor' Richard Maltby, Jr.) at times embarrassing. Characters go into pretty spotlights to sing their hopes and dreams so often the audience feels like shouting "get on with it!"
Let's say right now that there is a place on Broadway for a show that uses Irish imagery, music and dancing. After all, Irish music has some of the loveliest melodies and spriteliest tunes anywhere. From Thomas Moore's "The Last Rose of Summer" to Liz Carroll and John Doyle, music that tells a story and evokes emotion is natural to the Irish tradition. Some of the greatest playwrights of all time have been Irish: George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and today's Conor McPherson, Martin McDonagh and Brian Friel. And let's not forget such Irish showmen as Harrigan and Hart, George M. Cohan, and Gene Kelly. Great musicals need lyrical power, and the 'gift of the gab' is a renowned Irish virtue.
But this French creative team simply lacks the Celtic spirit. If only Doherty and McColgan had hired an Irish team to compose and write, rather than simply handing an Irish novel (Morgan Llywelyn’s Grania, She-King of the Irish Seas) to a lyricist with no ear for the drama of spoken (and sung) English words and a composer with no experience (or, apparently, interest) in the centuries-old power of Irish traditional music and instrumentation. Surely there are Irish musical and theatrical talents who could use the Irish musical traditions organically. There's a perfect opportunity for an "original-traditional" Irish song at the bachelor party scene when poor cardboard villain Donal, the rival chieftain's son who weds Grania, sings "Boys'll Be Boys." But it's just "Master of the House" from Les Miz rehashed. The melody is oom-pah-pah European and the lyrics by turns vulgar and anachronistic (Donal complains that his wife doesn't understand "gender!")
It's a delight to see some great Irish step-dancing – some of the performers, like Noelle Curran, you may know from Riverdance and appearances with Cherish the Ladies and other Celtic bands. There's a good old-fashioned chorus line and a cast of 42, but the numbers never properly add to the drama on hand: they feel tacked on. The dances are never allowed to go on long enough to raise excitement (have Boublil and Schönberg ever even attended a trad concert or session?), and seeing actors pretend to play fiddle or pipes onstage is such an opportunity missed. There were some great Irish musicians in the pit orchestra, including Liz Knowles on fiddle and Kieran O’Hare on uillean pipes – rather than having actors mime playing (badly), what a treat it would have been to see them up on stage, and hear more of them making their magic.
This show could have been groundbreaking, not unlike Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock's Fiddler on the Roof which put Jewish folk dance and ethnic style into a commercial Broadway musical, one that you didn't have to be Jewish to love. In the right creative hands, step-dancing can be used to further a story just as other dance forms do: the ethnic dance style speaks volumes about tradition in Fiddler, and even the square-dancing in Oklahoma! (another groundbreaking show in its time) deepens the tensions between farmers and cowhands. At the Pirate Queen wedding, there's a hint of clan rivalry in the dance, but it doesn't develop in any way that's interesting. The musical staging by Graciela Daniele is never gracefully married to Leavy's Irish choreography. The dancers themselves, though, leap passionately – it's lovely to see the talented hoofers in the pub scene, or at the wedding. In a line, they even succeed at rousing a sleepy audience.
While the show never integrates its aesthetic with its story, the storyline itself staggers and wobbles: the emphasis of the central narrative changes so often that it can make you feel a little, well, seasick. Is the show about young Grania’s struggle to achieve her dream of being a sailor (a wish fulfilled early in Act I and with little sign of the opposition she supposedly faces)? Is it about the star-crossed love she has for Tiernan (handsome newcomer Hadley Fraser), interrupted by an arranged marriage to the son of a rival clan, Donal O'Flaherty (rather flabbily sung by Marcus Chait)? Is it about the coming showdown with Queen Elizabeth (comic coloratura Linda Balgord)? Without a central issue to string the episodes together it all ends up feeling like an overheated singing Lifetime biopic.
You know you're in trouble early on, when Grania has a 'singing out her hopes and dreams' song as is the norm in musicals – in musical comedy, that is. The song is called "Woman," and it refers to her desire to be a sailor like her father, the dignified Dubhdara, played by Jeff McCarthy. His conflicts between love and tradition, duty and progress, recall those of the King of Siam in The King and I, and he has a similar deathbed scene. As Dubhdara, McCarthy has a powerful voice and presence, but because the show has so many threads, his role too feels thin.
The trouble is, Grania gets her wish to be a sailor, and then a captain, and then a leader, very quickly. We're constantly told that she faces obstacles due to being a woman, but we don't see that. Grania's almost supernatural ability to save the day wears out its welcome. When she crawls from her bed after childbirth to stop an invading English troupe with one feeble thrust of a new mother's sword, you might feel inspired to snort, not applaud. We also never see this Pirate Queen doing any pirating. Pirates are essentially sea-going muggers, but Grania and her clan seem to inhabit a kind of floating Camelot that will unite the clans and create an Irish nation. Perhaps the creators want us to think that the piracy is a response to oppression, but this is never shown.
For all its "You go, girl!" sentiments, The Pirate Queen presents a version of idealized womanhood that is squarely a male fantasy. At one point, the English trick the men of the O'Flahertys into leaving the women alone, aiming to capture Grania. She organizes the women to trick the English – by seducing them (and graphic choreography shows this isn't just flirting). When English leader Bingham (effectively fawning William Youmans) declares that Grania "battles like a man, this woman," it's inadvertently funny. Grania discovers what it means to be a woman only after she gives birth – and Queen Elizabeth envies her the love of a good man.
When the show isn't worshipping at Grania’s feet, it hops to the court of Queen Elizabeth – where the role of the English as antagonists is undermined by the representation of the court as an overdressed, overstuffed pack of fops. Elizabeth's costumes, designed by Martin Pakledinaz, are beautiful but so exaggerated that at one point she wears a ruff the size of a wagon wheel. Presenting the English court as pasty-faced sissies strikes me as a French antipathy – the Irish more often portray the English as villains and brutes. It’s a problematic artistic choice, because if the enemy is silly, the coming showdown is simply less interesting.
Queen Elizabeth was much more than a queen who happened to be a woman, after all. The woman who defeated the Spanish Armada, inspired Shakespeare, and united a country divided by religion was a great monarch and a worthwhile opponent. But we never really get a showdown in any case: Grania is captured, and when she's in prison, the two women, on either sides of the stage, sing soliloquies about their positions in "She Who Has All." When Elizabeth sings "What does she have that I don't have?" the audience titters at what seems like a moment of rare wit, but then we realize we're meant to take it seriously.
At well over two hours, the show drags, and its payoff is feeble. Some audiences will love the show anyway – the dancers deserve better, and their steps shine, and the singers pour their overmiked hearts out. I hope Doherty and McColgan try again: it would be a real shame if the money bled by this expensive undertaking (it has an ongoing ‘Castcom’ you can view on iTunes, for example) discourages a future musical that makes the most of Irish song and dance. A Broadway musical that uses the energy and originality of Riverdance is a terrific idea. Too bad The Pirate Queen isn't it.
The Pirate Queen
Presented by Riverdream, under the direction of Moya Doherty and John McColgan, at the Hilton Theatre, 213 W 42nd Street, NYC, NY. April 5-open ended. Tues-Sat 8:00 pm, matinees Wed and Sat 2 pm, Sun 3 pm. Tickets at www.ticketmaster.com or 212-307-4100.
Reviewer: Gwen Orel
Editing: Louise Owen
Gwen Orel has been in love with Celtic music since she was a teenager. Founder of the Celtic Music Society of Montgomery, her writing has appeared in the New York Times, American Theatre, Time Out New York, and Back Stage. For the past two years, she hes produced Celtic music for the Folk Project, New Jersey.