The Pirate Queen
It’s not for a lack of trying. The substantial effort that goes into The Pirate Queen is apparent in every single moment of the laborious production currently playing at the Hilton Theatre. The sets are lavish, the costumes are colorful and the songs are lengthy and loud. But the various elements of this show do not come together to form a successful production – that is, if you define a successful production as one that involves compelling characters, cohesive plots and a satisfying ending.
The story of Grace O’Malley (Stephanie J. Block), a historical heroine, spans many years and several countries. As a rebellious young woman she sneaks onto her father’s pirate ship disguised as a man and proves herself to be a capable sailor and warrior. In an attempt to absolve an ancient feud, she marries the son of another clan’s leader, betraying her childhood sweetheart, Tiernan (Hadley Fraser). Years of personal and political battles follow, displaying Grace’s unflappable strength and courage as well as her loyalty to her childhood home, Ireland.
Grace’s progressive views of femininity – and resulting frustration – are apparent from the opening number, when she compares her gender to a jail sentence and promises herself to Tiernan without her father’s permission. Sadly, these views are not shared by her husband, Donal (Marcus Chait) and their marriage is less than harmonious. These tensions are amplified when Grace’s father Dubhdara (Jeff McCarthy) declares Grace to be the chieftain of her clan.
Grace’s story is paralleled with that of Queen Elizabeth (Linda Balgord) who is reigning as the sole monarch of England. Struggling to control Ireland and executing this control through the ambitious Richard Bingham (William Youmans), Elizabeth also hopes to establish herself as a capable female leader. When she learns of Grace’s power overseas, her response is conflicted. Should she loathe the female pirate who challenges her, or should she admire the courageous woman who defies unfair societal standards? These emotions surface during one of the night’s better songs, “She Who Has It All,” in which the imprisoned Grace is envied by the powerful but lonely Elizabeth.
The functioning of Grace as Elizabeth’s doppelganger is one of the most compelling – and sadly, unexplored – aspects of the show. While Grace is firmly established as a brave and intelligent woman, it is never explained why she is so progressive. Can this be credited to her mother, who is never mentioned? Her father is reluctant to let her onto the ship, but once he sees her in battle, his opinions change and he declares her his co-captain, and later, chieftain. But that does not stop him from marrying her off for political reasons.
While the elements of The Pirate Queen appear to be a formulaic success, they stumble and fall in the process. The show feels scattered and haphazard, while frantically attempting to create and sustain energy. Despite how interesting Grace may be as an intellectual study, her character does not warrant emotional investment. Block does what she can with the character, and her efforts are admirable, but Grace is not a worthy role for this talented actress. The same can be said of Fraser’s Tiernan, who, while suitably equipped for the 80s style power ballads he frequently bursts into, is not presented as a three dimensional character. He is too good, too loyal, too loving – where is his flaw?
This failure can be credited to the music, which makes up the majority of the show. The songs are too strongly reminiscent of Les Miserables. another production credited to this show’s collaborators and playing a few blocks away. However, they do not carry the same emotional and historical depth as Les Miserables. The same can be said of the spirited Riverdance-inspired routines that accompany too many of the show’s numbers. They distract from the story, and they do not enhance or advance the plot.
Grace’s courage is admirable and enviable, even today. In a post-suffrage society, where The Feminine Mystique and Are Men Necessary? are read, one wonders how she would fare, where a woman is running a powerhouse campaign for president, but still facing frequent comments about her appearance and likability. In the highly anti-climactic scene where Grace and Elizabeth work out their political differences apparently through harmonizing in song, the conclusion is unsatisfactory. But perhaps George Bush and Nancy Pelosi should take some suggestions from American Idol. After all, girls just want to have fun.