Irish 'Pirate Queen' Struts Stuff on Broadway

Irish 'Pirate Queen' Struts Stuff on Broadway


Two strong-willed women, one Irish, one English, and spirited choreography and music dominate new musical

By Patricia Jameson-Sammartano
Culture Editor /

(First published in 2007) Enticing and energetic only begin to describe "The Pirate Queen," now on Broadway. Created by producers Moya Doherty and John McColgan ("Riverdance"), and musical dramatists Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schönberg ("Les Miserables," "Miss Saigon"), it is the larger-than-life story of Grace "Grania" O'Malley.

Although the producers and dramatists have major Broadway credits, it should be noted that "The Pirate Queen" is neither "Riverdance;" nor is it "Les Miserables." Nor should it be. The vibrant Irish music and dance in the play superbly serve the storyline, rather than being the story.

The show is based upon the novel "Grania: She-King of the Irish Seas," by Morgan Llywelyn. The producers took dramatic license to make the plot of the musical work. The tale begins in 1558 in Clew Bay, County Mayo, with the christening of the Clan O'Malley's ship, The Pirate Queen.

Photos By

Joan Marcus

Grace, daughter of the clan chieftain Dubhdara (Black Oak) O'Malley, against her father's wishes, puts up her hair and dresses as a man so that she can stay aboard ship a major transgression for a woman of the 16th century, when a woman aboard ship was considered bad luck. Portrayed by Stephanie J. Block (seen in "The Boy From Oz"), Grace has an ally in her shipmate/ soulmate Tiernan (Hadley Fraser), but when her father discovers her dressed as a pirate, he threatens to put her ashore; Dubhdara (Jeff McCarthy) relents easily though, singing, "Had you a pirate's heart at 10?" One gets the impression that Grace has her father firmly in hand, but she also proves to be an intrepid fighter. At that point, she has become the Pirate Queen, leader of her clan.

One would think that a female clan chieftain would have the prerogative to choose her own mate, but, in her century, clans were united by arranged marriages. Grace promises herself to Tiernan, but breaks that promise when her father arranges a marriage for her with Donal O'Flaherty so that the O'Malley and O'Flaherty clans could unite to fight against the might of the English government.

Stephanie J. Block as 'Grania' and Hadley Fraser as 'Tiernan.'

Grace was given the stark choice: Marry Donal (portrayed by Marcus Chait) or watch her country fall apart. She chooses her people over her (and Tiernan's) happiness. Brehon law dictated that a woman could divorce a man, and gave a woman many rights that were suppressed only after the English came to dominate Ireland. In the play, Grace has three years and a day to dismiss her husband. She accepts his family crest, but will not kneel to Donal; Tiernan sings the soulful ballad "I'll Be There" and stays true to his promise. The love triangle serves as subplot to the political legend.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Irish Sea, Queen Elizabeth Tudor (Linda Balgord) is consolidating her power, sending the sycophantic Sir Richard Bingham to Ireland to destroy the clans and Grace. Elizabeth cannot understand how a mere rag-tag clan can cause her so much trouble; Bingham tells her there are many inlets and bays in western Ireland, where ships can hide easily.

Dubhdara extracts a promise from Grace to continue the family, and he gives her the O'Malley chieftain's ring, much to Donal's dismay. Act I ends with the funeral by cremation of Dubhdara in a truly spectacular scene, reminiscent of Viking funerals. He is sent out on a small boat through pyrotechnics. Donal wants the clan chieftainship, but the O'Malleys will follow only Grace. As Bingham says to Elizabeth, "She has no throne, no title, but she leads." That's charisma, and Grace has it to spare.

'The Pirate Queen' is neither 'Riverdance' nor is it 'Les Miserables.' ... The vibrant Irish music and dance in the play superbly serve the storyline, rather than being the story.

Act II begins with Grace in childbirth, leaving her bed and newborn son, Eoin, for a battle, with Tiernan threatening to kill Donal if Donal touches Grace's baby. Grace dismisses (divorces) Donal, telling him he has "not a drop of Irish blood left" in his veins. She has fulfilled her commitment to her father by having a child. He's a womanizer and an opportunist, not the man her father wanted for her. In fact, Donal's keynote song is "Boys Will Be Boys," underscoring his roguish, licentious and irresponsible ways.

We switch scenes to England once more, with Bingham serving as comic relief as he brings news that he has not captured Grace yet. She is an aberration to her sex, claims he, because she is such a strong leader, to which Elizabeth replies, "Aberrant how?" The irony was not lost on the audience the night we attended as the majestically costumed Queen sneered at Bingham.

Back in Ireland, the O'Malleys are celebrating Eoin's christening with music and dance; as we said earlier, the dance is used to supplement the story, as with celebrations like weddings and christenings, of children or ships. The deceitful Donal arrives and begs to be allowed to be there for his son, but it is only a pretense; he has collaborated with Bingham.

Elizabeth and Grace ultimately meet and sing the poignant "She Who Has All." Elizabeth is lamenting the fact that although she is queen of the world's richest empire, Grace O'Malley has the riches that matter family, honor and friends.

There is so much to like about "The Pirate Queen." The vocals are outstanding. (The cast album will be out in June.) Block unfortunately came down with the flu opening week, and was replaced by standby Kathy Voytko midway through Act I the night we attended. Block has epic vocal talents, a swashbuckling manner, dancing talent and the attitude to make us believe she is the Pirate Queen. Balgord as Queen Elizabeth was also impressive; her vocals were regal, her attitude toward Bingham dismissive and blatantly funny. (Balgord was nominated in April for a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical.)

William Youmans, 'Lord Bingham' at Queen Elizabeth's court.

Fraser marks his Broadway debut as Tiernan with this play and captures theatergoers' hearts with his passionate intensity and Broadway-sized tenor. Chait plays the ingratiating Donal with a blend of profanity and infidelity, making him the perfect foil for Tiernan. His "Boys Will Be Boys" number was viewed with awe by our teenage dancer-daughter, who told us later, "Do you realize how difficult it is while choreographing sex scenes to perform moves like that without really hurting a man (anatomically)?"

McCarthy delights as the earnest, ever-faithful Dubhdara. William Youmans ("Bingham") was cast as the perfect cad, the villain you love to hate. These are all very talented performers, who are likely to go far in this business.

We have seen this show twice, once during previews in New York and the second time the night before its opening, April 5. The cast and crew worked very hard to tighten the production, and the show's growth was apparent. Gaps seen in the plot were filled by opening night.

Forty-two performers make up this ensemble, and the backstage work also supersedes expectations. The direction, by Frank Galati, with musical staging by Graciela Daniele and Irish dancing choreographed by Carol Leavy Joyce, make for an entertaining evening. The sheer physicality of the dance and fight scenes are extraordinary.

Jeff McCarthy as 'Dubhdara.'

The set, which begins as a wooden ship, takes on many aspects: It becomes the shore, an Elizabethan castle, a church set against a graveyard for the christening of young Eoin O'Malley, and a dungeon. With the use of a drop, people are buried; Queen Elizabeth rises regally from below the stage, which becomes a palace. Eugene Lee, who was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in January, designed the set.

Lighting design by Kenneth Posner also added greatly to the play, as did Jonathan Deans' sound design — when the cannons fired, we jumped. Veteran hand Richard Maltby Jr. (Tonys for "Ain't Misbehavin' and "Miss Saigon") co-authored the book and lyrics.

Finally, the costumes worn by both the Irish and English ensembles were spectacular. The Elizabethan gowns were meticulously researched, but it was the Irish costuming that proved more difficult for designer Martin Pakledinaz because there were no visual records of Irish dress then. He eventually designed using "colors of the land, like stone and sea" in soft lines so that the Irish ensemble could step dance and could change easily. Grace's Celtic-inspired wedding gown is especially beautiful in its simplicity; Queen Elizabeth's black velvet gown lined with jewels is a symbol of power. My daughter and I were astonished at its elegance the first time we saw it.

This year's Tony Award nominations will be announced May 15, and we predict numerous nominations for "The Pirate Queen."

The program includes a note on the history underlying the play, but it should be noted that this is musical theater and not biography The real Grace O'Malley lived from 1530-1603; she was married to Donal O'Flaherty for 19 years, had a second marriage to Richard Burke, and gave birth to three sons and a daughter. The meeting with Queen Elizabeth took place; the women spoke in Latin, as Grace knew no English and Elizabeth knew no Irish. Tiernan was a character invented for the musical.

This play has opened to unsympathetic reviews; this may result from expectations heightened by a very intense marketing campaign. Indeed, the themes that this play deals with — women wielding power, bonding between father and daughter — are relevant today. One criticism is that more could have been made of the parallels between Grace and Elizabeth, both daughters of strong fathers and both inheritors of strong personalities.

Still, this is an epic Broadway musical. Don't be put off by negative reviews. See it and decide for yourself on the merits. There's a lot to savor. WGT



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Tags: Arts, Drama

Comment by jean kaniecki on January 8, 2014 at 1:40pm

Is this play still running?

Comment by Gerry Regan on January 9, 2014 at 5:35pm

No, Jean, but an opera on a related theme is in production, led by fellow member Fran O'Neill.

Comment by jean kaniecki on January 10, 2014 at 8:42am

Thanks.  Friends had seen it on Broadway  several years ago and I know it didn't get good reviews in the papers although they enjoyed it.  I thought maybe this was a new one.  What a great movie this would make.

Comment by Gerry Regan on January 10, 2014 at 1:18pm

Critics be d--ned -- I was enthralled by it, as I guess most of our readers and members would be. Not sure if it made back its investment though.


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