On my most recent trip to NYC, I caught a preview performance of The Pirate Queen, the latest from the gentlemen who brought us Les Miserables and Miss Saigon. It was a mess, although it did contain moments of genuine, albeit fleeting, brilliance.
Composer Claude-Michel Schonberg has a handy way with catchy and moving melodies. But even with three different lyricists (Alain Boublil, John Dempsey, and Richard Maltby, Jr., the last of whom was brought in after the show's poorly received Chicago tryout), or perhaps because of them, the words in this almost entirely sung-through show rarely rise above serviceable, and instead remain firmly mired in trite phrasing and obvious sentiment.
After an inscrutable and unnecessary prologue, the story soon became quite predictable, pedestrian, in fact. It became apparent early on that this production would not traffic in subtlety, but rather in cardboard heroes and Saturday-matinee bad guys. The plot involves a Disney-like tale of a young Irish girl who wants to live a life hitherto reserved for men by her times and society's attitudes. She goes on to be the head of her clan, which happens to make its living as, you guessed it, a band of pirates.
The scenario isn't ridiculous, but the explication is. The worst of the creators' crimes are awkward storytelling and a thoroughly porous plot. The characters eventually surmount all obstacles amid bald-faced platitudes and lots (and lots) of Irish step-dancing. In the absence of true character development, the authors rely on forced dramatic shorthand to tell the audience whom they should like and whom they should "boo" at the final curtain. (Which, alas, they do.) The act one number "Boys'll Be Boys" was an especially ham-handed attempt to establish the character Donal as a drunken, callow womanizer.
The show contains some sublime moments, particularly the end of act one, but its overall impact is diminished by the sheer speed and density of the narrative. I could have done with a little less Riverdancing and a lot more plot exposition and character development. For example, in one scene the eponymous pirate queen is being married off to Donal, the scion of another Irish clan, a marriage of convenience and advantage. But in the very next scene, with scant transition, they've suddenly been married for a year, with the only explanation coming from Grace's sarcastic "happy anniversary" wishes.
The Pirate Queen isn't nearly as bad as Lestat. There's much more to enjoy here, particularly Stephanie Block and Hadley Fraser as the frustrated central lovers, though the creators haven't really given them fully formed characters to inhabit. Block is a formidable performer with a knockout voice and tremendous presence. But she's hampered with some really lame lines and some very awkward scenes.
And then there's this character Evleen who keeps showing up and singing inspirational Gaelic anthems, and I'll be damned if I can figure out who she is in the narrative. Is she a nurse maid? The town crier? The village idiot? Did she perhaps have a bigger part before Richard Maltby the editor arrived?
The show is still very early in the preview process; I saw it on the first Friday of its run. In fact, at one point, the performance came to a halt because of a technical glitch. The show resumed shortly thereafter, minus the ship's rigging, in which one of the actors apparently had become entangled. But something tells me that the legion problems with Pirate Queen aren't the sort that the creators will be able to iron out between now and opening night. They're too systemic.
As a side note, this was my first time in the Ford Center...er, I mean, the Hilton Theater. I must say, the actual Hilton marketing presence was rather subtle, limited to a time-line mural in the outer lobby and a Waldorf-Astoria display in the hall outside the lounges.
Tomorrow: my review of the new Kander and Ebb musical, Curtains.