Grace O’Malley, the heroine of “The Pirate Queen”, is a warrior, chieftain, mother and an abused wife who befriends Queen Elizabeth I, saving Ireland from British subjugation. It’s all in a day’s work for this superwoman. Yes, you guessed it, a lot of soap, a pinch of history and some rehashed tuners from Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s “Les Miserables” and you have their latest Broadway musical.
Using the historical relationship between the eponymous “Pirate Queen of Ireland” and the Queen of England, the authors, along with Richard Maltby have created a picture that distorts obvious truths, most importantly the persistent political antagonisms between the two countries. That’s especially glaring in the portrayal of Grace who having just been released from prison by the Queen, implodes on her majesty deux ex machina, and in a matter of moments negotiates peace with England all while the chorus chants, “God bless Ireland.”
Grace, as portrayed here by Stephanie Block was as good as her word. A flawless, pure-hearted, loyal and devoted lass, she wields a sword with lethal effect. Too good to be true, right? Well, it’s certainly not history, both women having gone back on their word.
But this is a musical after all, and purity of heart amidst ruthless rancor and Irish dancing yields a higher message. If only that were the case! Unfortunately, what’s lost in the process is just that — the compelling story of two powerful women, what brought them together and what kept them apart, how they lived and what they lived for. Instead we get an episodic, hard-hitting plot that includes Grace’s relationship with her father and two husbands, a list of battles, one of which takes place directly after childbirth, a 7 year stint in an English prison…on and on, ad nauseum. So over the top, it’s enough to make a feminist even angrier!
Lovers of Irish dance may still enjoy Carol Leavy Joyce’s evocation of “Riverdance” style choreography. Martin Pakledinaz costumes the awesomely sexy Jeff McCarthy as Grace’s father Dubhdara in heavy leather and sweeping white hair. Still the standouts are the Queen and her ladies in a variety of courtly garb that look way too uncomfortable — Queen or no Queen– to wear. If we are to believe in these costumes, Queen Elizabeth must have been a real slave to fashion!
No need to delve into the athletic and pumped up performances either; the actors are at the service of the show. Hadley Fraser especially as Grace’s true soul mate proves, however ironically, what forbearance must be like and Marcus Chait as the lout who sells out his wife and his country is hard to bare. But what seems “real” here is a direct result of deadpan improvisation and an insistent happy ending.
By Isa Goldberg