It is one thing to have a recognizable style, but for the first act, at least, of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s “The Pirate Queen,” the show feels like it’s following a how-to kit based on the pair’s previous hit, “Les Miserables.” Here, the epic musical (which transfers to Broadway in the spring) portrays the story of the real-life sixteenth-century Irish Chieftain, Grace O’Malley, performed with gusto by Stephanie J. Block, a killer-voiced actress who played Elphaba in the Chicago version of “Wicked” last year. The Irish-themed musical is a rarity, and O’Malley’s tale of proto-feminism—she commanded a fleet of ships; owned huge tracts of land; eventually sailed to England for a tête-à-tête with Queen Elizabeth I—is rich and unique enough to warrant the bombast of a sung-through musical. Broadway could use some of that right now. But too often, shades of “Les Miz” peek through, and not in a good way. The former show’s self-seriousness was tempered by its cunning staging—a rotating platform that connoted movement and the passage of time and place—that is palpably missing from director Frank Galati’s vision. (The scenes meant to convey sea life are oddly flat.) But the en mass gatherings of the company are 100 percent “Les Miz”—including a “One Day More”-type rallying song called “A Day Beyond Belclare” and a boisterous comic-relief tavern scene that matches the meter, tone and melodic pattern of “Master of the House.” Finally the Irish dancing breaks out, but considering the producers of “Riverdance” are behind this show, it is odd to see the dance numbers presented as non-show-stoppers—a missed opportunity that needs attention before the New York debut. In Act Two, when Grace has lost everything—her father, her cad of a husband, and her land to the encroaching powers of England—the show actually verges on the edges of boredom exactly when it should be pressing and plying you with deep emotion. As for the score, it feels over-laden with ballads, but is not half bad. Too often, the music is overshadowed by visual miscues, including Queen Elizabeth’s exaggerated, Disneyfied costumes. Lost in all this is a second and third dimension to Grace’s personality; beyond her confidence, we don’t get a sense of who she is. But really, the trouble starts as early as opening bars of the overture, when a low whistle all but signals the arrival of Celine Dion to sing the theme to “Titanic.” (Nina Metz)
For another take on “The Pirate Queen,” see Dennis Polkow’s review.
“The Pirate Queen” plays at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 West Randolph; (312)902-1400, through November 26.