Reviewed by David Spencer
Feel what you may about the guys who codified the Euro-musical style, Boublil and Schoenberg—say they pushed the envelope by "introducing" a declamatory, through-sung approach to musical theatre; or say they got lucky with overwrought novelty applied to the right properties at the right time—this much is clear, and always has been, to most listeners with understanding ears: Theirs is a limited palette.
The broad strokes and primary colors of declamation—which is to say declared emotional states, without subtext or richness of character beyond establishing a basic archetype (the virtuous good guy, the obsessed cop, the bereft prostitute; the naive soldier, the scheming wheeler-dealer, the lovestruck unwed mother; etc, etc.)—don't always work, but for this team (that their occasional English-language collaborator and interpreter Richard Maltby, Jr. affectionately calls The Les Mizzes), such devices keep their shows afloat...so long as said shows are in the land of sweeping melodrama with operatic potential, like Les Miserables; or a story that is itself based on a declamatory opera, such as the Madame Butterfly-derived Miss Saigon.
But when wit and subtlety are called for, or true humor, or the subtext of a character with complex emotions to sort out, or a hidden agenda to achieve—or indeed the simple power of quiet reflection or intimacy—or any number of other things that a broad brush-stroke can't accommodate—the Euro-style is a bad fit. (Remember, Martin Guere, about a heroic impostor who takes a cad’s place, bombed thrice in London and never made it to New York.) And here's something else to consider: A writer, doesn’t "innovate" something like the Euro-style in order to break new ground. He defaults to it because he haven't got the sensibility or the versatility or the craft tools to work in a more—well, I'll use a misleading word—"sophisticated" mode. I hasten to add, I’m not talking about talent or intelligence per se—obviously the Les Mizzes are very bright and in their way, terrifically talented—but rather the reasons why talent and intelligence are put toward a narrower vocabulary. Again, whether or not you dig the Euro thing is up to you. But its waters come from a shallow well.
In the case of Boublil and Schoenberg, the variations come from infusing each new show with musical colors indigenous to the locale and/or general ambience of the setting (i.e. nationalistic anthems and confessional declarations for the revolution-era France of Les Miz, jazz rock and Asian riffs plus nationalistic anthems and confessional declarations for Miss Saigon.) That said, doesn't every effective songwriter or songwriting team flavor their scores with sounds meant to evoke period, geography, history, etc. as appropriate? And the answer is, of course, yes, but those influences, unless pointedly employed for satire or pastiche, are used as filters through which a dramatic statement is processed—not as the dramatic statement itself.
Because the B&S style is so conspicuously melodramatic and grandiose, it also constantly risks dancing with self-parody. And if the story elements and character archetypes aren't themselves overwrought, they can't support it, and wind up getting crushed—or inadvertently lampooned—under its weight.
Which brings us to The Pirate King, in which both things happen. I've not read the novel it's based on, Morgan Llewellyn's Grania: She King of the Irish Seas, but reading about the book and watching an online interview with its author (http://www.tor.com/llywelyn/video_interview.html), one gets the impression of a rich and complex historical figure as its inspiration in a tale that includes juicy political drama and a bit of racy romance for good measure. Check it out: In the late 16th Century, Grania (aka Grace) was at the forefront of Ireland's sea battles against the expansionist England, her nemesis Queen Elizabeth I. Presumably one of the things that makes this conflict a historical watershed is that it was a nation-defining battle between two powerful women at a time when women had very little power at all.
Now, whether Ms. Llewellyn has written a pulpy page-turner or an epic masterpiece I don't know (not that the two are necessarily mutually exclusive); but I do know this much:
It's a swashbuckler.
Women pirates, British baddies, females testing their power in battle and strategy against men, cannons, guns, swordplay, the mighty sea—and that spells a tale demanding dash, flair, brisk dialogue and rollicking adventure.
The Pirate Queen seems to think that's what it's about, with its occasional swordplay and infusion of Irish folk choreography (it is no coincidence that the producers of Riverdance are the driving force here as well). But bereft of smart characterization and high suspense, that's just runnin' around. Because what The Pirate Queen really offers is agit-prop feminist pap. (I hasten to add: I'm all for feminism; it's the pap I object to—and no medical puns, please.) Grace (Stephanie J. Block) belts out her dismay at being considered only a woman when she is consigned to land by her Irish chieftan dad (strong-voiced, ultra-butch Jeff McCarthy); but after sneaking back onboard in male drag and saving dad's life in battle, he sees that she's more than a mere woman.
And this sets the tone.
Woman this, woman that, just a woman, more than a woman, powerless woman, powerful woman, message message message, she has a baby and experiences feelings that "only a woman can know," none of the good guys are the least bit threatened by her femininity, all the bad guys are misogynistic or worse, simply pigs, and by the way did I mention she's a woman. And another thing—since being a formidable woman is a thing we are meant to admire, why oh why is Queen Elizabeth written—and poor, poor Linda Balgord directed (by—of all people—Frank [Ragtime, The Grapes of Wrath] Galati!) to play her as—a strident, mugging, whiny harpy? Even though she's our heroine's adversary, shouldn't her command of resources be every bit as stylish and clever as Grace's? Forget feminism, kids, this is Drama 101: create a worthy opponent.
The men in the musical receive about as much dignity, or less. Grace's true love Tiernan (Hadley Fraser), whom she must give up for the sake of a political marriage to the son of another Irish clan, isn't much more than a strapping wimp, who stands by stoically and defends her in the odd moment. That political husband (Marcus Chait) is a guy who unbuttons his shirt and flings his long blond hair about, looking like one of those Fabian facsimiles on romance paperbacks—he makes a lot of hip gestures and puts a lot of hugely proportioned jutting things in front of his crotch, because how else would we know he's crude, a womanizer and thinks he has the biggest tool on the ocean?
Next to the Queen, an equally beleaguered William Youmans is forced to play her henchman Sir Richard Bingham as a preening weasel. He actually has a mustache and he all but twirls it. There's nothing wrong with a villainous villain, but you want him to be sly and clever, like Iago, or even The Joker. But Boublil and Schoenberg have given him naught but inanities to utter, the most memorable of which is an aside to the audience about Grace that he must crush the woman's balls. It's a forced, even embarrassing attempt at humor (not the only one either, in fact it's typical of the level) and because the music it's set to dictates the line reading, the unfortunate Mr. Youmans battles heroically (it may indeed be the most genuinely heroic thing done by a male on that stage) to underplay it. He loses the battle, of course, and the joke produces, worse than silence, a few mild titters. Oh, look, I just said titter. (See what I mean?)
And one must, while were at it, pause to acknowledge Bingham's red-suited court cronies, who affect an exaggerated British effeteness and, every time something seems clever or goes according to plan, sing a kind of "pip-pip, all's well" ditty whose tune sounds like nothing so much as "Plop-plop, fizz-fizz, oh, what a relief it is."
Which brings us to the music itself. It saws away mightily, insisting that its grandly stated melodies are meaty and profound, but to me—and I have a fast, good, practiced ear—it just came over in a wash of recycled bigness left over from the B&S glory days, flavored with Irish modalities. McBig and McBland. The Hallmark card couplets that pose as lyrics compound the compoundables.
Without being a project insider, it's impossible to know where the natively English-speaking collaborators, Richard Maltby, Jr. and John Dempsey (a Brit lyricist best known for the West End Witches of Eastwick) fit in, but I think one has to give them a pass as far as culpability. Maltby in particular entered the process late, to help clarify things out of town, and that's rarely a miracle-producing assignment. As a famous musical theatre expert once said, the most critical mistakes are made on Day One...and no "doctor," lawyer or Indian chief (make that chieftan) could possibly have altered the fundamental character and approach of the show itself. That's at the core and anything derived from it is fruit of the poisoned tree.
But "the Les Mizzes" are who they are. They do what they do. And they have not the reflex, the instinct or the constitutional disposition to do other. Which is why The Pirate Queen is so hugely, thuddingly disappointing.
Begorrah, lads and lassies, it's enough to get yer Irish up...