A bizarre marriage of convenience, the producers of the 1990s Irish dance phenomenon “Riverdance” and the authors/composer of mega-shows “Les Misérables” and “Miss Saigon” have teamed up for a mega-mega show that tells the story of real-life sixteenth-century Irish heroine Grace “Grania” O’Malley. Receiving its “world premiere” in the middle of two months of a pre-Broadway tryout here, “The Pirate Queen” is a fast-paced swashbuckling extravaganza complete with real cannon blasts, sea battles, an onstage cremation with real fire and plenty o’ Irish dancing, dancing and more dancing. On paper, it may sound like a silly cross-fertilization, but “Pirate Queen” returns Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg to the genre of epic melodrama that the pair first popularized in “Les Miz,” but with a far more manageable story than Victor Hugo provided them and with all of the best elements that made that show such a sensation: crowds and memorable characters singing their hearts out at key life moments and situations with the music evocatively used to communicate what they are feeling emotionally. As for the Irish dancing, it always has a context in the story (a wedding, a victory celebration, et al) and thus never seems half the distraction that an entire evening of it by itself seemed a la “Riverdance.” Act I moves along with ferocious, tireless intensity and is a powerful and memorable experience, but by contrast, Act II seems flabby and lightweight, but discovering and fixing such problems are what tryouts are all about. The work is operatically through-composed like previous Boublil and Schönberg efforts (i.e., everything is sung and there is no spoken dialogue), but Irish instruments such as tin whistle, uillean pipes, Irish harp and bodhrán are used to great effect within a rich, orchestral texture that often alternates sonically between the courtly music of the Elizabethan court and raucous Irish folk music, the styles combining when Elizabeth I and the Pirate Queen have an across-stage duet to great dramatic effect. “The Pirate Queen” is a throwback to the big Broadway-type shows of the eighties and nineties where the scenery, effects and costumes get as much—if not more—applause as the work itself, but at least in this case, the piece can stand up to the comparisons, and then some. (Dennis Polkow)
For another take on “The Pirate Queen,” see Nina Metz’s review with the listing.
“The Pirate Queen” plays at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 West Randolph; (312)902-1400, through November 26.