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The Pirate Queen, the new musical by the Les Miz men, Boublil and Schönberg, is a lavish Broadway spectacle. This story of Grace O’Malley, a rebellious 16th-century Irish lass who could best any man in battle and who headed her family’s seafaring clan, features crotch- enhanced costumes for the hearties, a ship-shape set by Eugene Lee, and three young vocal powerhouses, led by the charismatic Stephanie J. Block’s Grace.
PQ, in other words, is pitched perfectly for the tourist. The rest of us must content ourselves with the impressive sweep and sway of the staging, by Frank Galati and Graciela Daniele, and the double entendres of the book, which requires the suppression of sniggering at lines such as “You were born to be a queen.”
In addition to Miss Grace, the queen-on-view is the greatest of them all: Elizabeth I. The O’Malleys have deigned to defeat an English force, so Her Majesty dispatches the ruthless Sir Richard Bingham, played with brittle camp brio by William Youmans (think Cyril Ritchard’s Captain Hook), to take care of the impertinent Hibernians.
Despite her love for a shipmate named Tiernan, Grace feels obliged to enter into a clan-melding marriage with Donal O’Flaherty, whom the audience likes to hiss. PQ begins as a feminist fable: a spirited girl’s quest to survive in a man’s world. But it takes motherhood – the second act opens with Grace giving birth – to make the Pirate Queen a complete woman. Talk about hissable. The two queens, barren and fecund, meet and resolve the troubles over a cuppa: if only females ruled the world.
And if only Boublil and Schönberg remembered something they demonstrated so brilliantly in Les Miz and Miss Saigon: how to place a song in a clean narrative context where it can register emotionally, memorably. As for the choreography, as befits a musical funded by the coffers of a certain worldwide Irish step-movement smash, the guiding principle seems to be: when in doubt, Riverdance.
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