From Newsday, and my first Broadway review ever:
At one point early in "The Pirate Queen," most of the 42 cast members stand onstage braced for battle, the Irish soldiers facing their British counterparts. It seems the audience is about to be treated to a rousing, "300"-style fight to the death.
But a few seconds later, the stage is almost blank. A few scattered soldiers run this way and that. Some jump in the air like a child imitating a ballet dancer, while others swing swords at them, missing by several feet.
Such avoidance of real emotion is typical of "The Pirate Queen," the new musical at the Hilton Theatre that, at times, goes out of its way to be dramatically inert.
The show staggered into town with the kind of unfavorable buzz that makes critics feel like Barry Bonds preparing to face Roger Clemens' grandma.
"The Pirate Queen" isn't an embarrassment like "Dance of the Vampires" or a vanity project like "In My Life." It just feels a little sad, as if a lot of people put a lot of time into something that's simply lifeless. It makes one think: Turkeys aren't funny anymore.
"The Pirate Queen" tells the story of Grace O'Malley, a 16th-century pirate who leads an Irish rebellion against the British, led by Queen Elizabeth I. Grace does this despite being - as everyone keeps reminding us - a woman.
She's the kind of feminist who makes Susan B. Anthony look like Larry Flynt. Right after giving birth, she drags herself out of bed and crawls across the battlefield to stab a British soldier.
The show boasts the songwriting team of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg of "Les Misérables" and "Miss Saigon" fame. But "Les Miz," despite being a period mega-musical, continually surprises the audience as its characters confront true-to-life moral dilemmas and make inspiring choices.
"The Pirate Queen" is based on a true story but does a poor job of proving it. The characters seem to do things not because they want to, but because the script tells them to.
For instance, at one point Grace's father wants his clan to unite with another clan, so apparently Grace has to marry the other chieftain's son. No character onstage seems thrilled about this. Grace's real true love hangs around just in case. Even her father says the marriage's first three years are just a trial period.
A couple of scenes later, Grace's new husband stumbles home from a night of partying. She boldly declares, "This is no marriage." What did you expect it to be? Lucy and Ricky Ricardo?
Fans will recognize Schonberg's music - the opening song evokes "Do You Hear the People Sing?" from "Les Miz" - with slight Irish inflections expressed primarily via the orchestrations' pipes and whistles. The lyrics are infuriatingly predictable, as phrases like "seize the day, this is it" simply wash over us, meaning nothing.
At the performance I attended, Stephanie J. Block, playing Grace, was replaced early in the first act by Kathy Voytko, whose lovely voice bloomed during a few tranquil second act moments. Hadley Fraser has an enjoyable tenor in the role of Tiernan, Grace's true love (though the writers fail to make their love convincing).
The show finds a couple invigorating moments of Irish dancing - after all, its producers created "Riverdance."
The idea of an adventure musical about a female pirate hero whose feminist ideals create an unlikely bond with her enemy doesn't seem so horrible. But whatever alchemy made "Les Miz" so magical simply doesn't exist here.
THE PIRATE QUEEN. Music by Claude-Michel Sch"nberg; lyrics by Alain Boublil, Richard Maltby Jr. and John Dempsey; book by Boublil, Schonberg and Maltby. Directed by Frank Galati, musical staging by Graciela Daniele. Hilton Theatre, 213 W. 42nd St., Manhattan. Tickets $51.25-$111.25. Call 212-307-4100. Seen at Wednesday night preview.