Review: 'The Pirate Queen' at the Artisan Center Theater
Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Most of the time, a theatre company will put on a bad production of a good play or musical. Right now however, Artisan Center Theater is doing a good production of a bad musical, The Pirate Queen. It’s not Artisan’s fault that it’s a bad musical. The Pirate Queen is a poor knock-off of Les Miserables from the same writers and lyricists. The songs aren’t very memorable, the story is fairly boring, and the second act loses focus on the characters. None of this is the fault of the uniformly good actors and the enchanting set design on the stage.
The story is set in 16 th Century Ireland and is based on facts about a real life Pirate Queen who was an Irish clan leader that resisted the English conquest of Ireland. Grace O’Malley starts out an eighteen-year- old girl skilled in sword fighting and wanting to be a sailor and pirate on her father’s ship. At the time, women were not sailors, but wives and homemakers. But Grace instinctively takes over when her father is hurt in battle against the English. In order to strengthen the clans against the increasing threat from the English, Grace’s father Dubhdara marries Grace off to the son of their rival Irish clan. Grace protests the marriage, since she is actually in love with her childhood sweetheart Tiernan, but does what is best for her family. She is locked in war for years with the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth I. These two women rulers are each trying to do what they believe is best for their countries.
The musical was on Broadway from March to June in 2007. Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schonberg tried to create another hit show like they did with Les Miserables and Miss Saigon, minus the turntable and helicopter. But instead it’s like an Irish version of Les Miserables that falls flat. The songs are boring, overdramatic, and not very memorable. The only fun number in the show is a song called “Boys’ll Be Boys”, but it’s so similar to “Master of the House” from Les Miserables that it’s just not very original. There are several odd time jumps, spanning from one year at a time to seven years at a time that are not explained or defined very well within the plot. Act I is all about Grace and how independent she is, a natural leader, and her passion for her people. Grace’s focus in Act II is mostly about taking care of her son and saving her man. The same issues happen with the Queen Elizabeth I character. She’s a ruthless leader determined to stop Grace O’Malley in Act I, but has a sudden unexplained change of heart in Act II. Both characters have odd transformations from the feminist leaders we saw in Act I. Act II is really a betrayal of everything that came before it.
Since Artisan has double cast the show, I saw one set of actors on opening night. Mary Ridenour, playing Grace O’Malley, carries the show quite well. She’s a good actress and juggled all the elements of the show with ease. I was particularly impressed with her agility and fearlessness with the fight choreography. The role is pretty demanding and requires a wide vocal range. Ms. Ridenour sounded excellent belting out the high notes in her upper vocal register. However, I felt she lacked confidence in her lower register and some of the notes got lost. But she harmonized well with her costars and really listened to the actors around her.
I can’t say enough good things about Max Swarner as Tiernan, Grace O’Malley’s love interest and fellow pirate. He has a beautiful voice and excellent technical control of it. I could probably listen to him sing the phone book. Mr. Swarner brought strong intensity and urgency to the part that showed he was invested 110% in the character. His presence filled the stage and so did his voice. Bravo, Mr. Swarner.
On opening night, Heather Sturdevant substituted for Shoshanna Cook as Queen Elizabeth I. Ms. Sturdevant carried herself very regally and convincingly portrayed the new monarch as an ice queen out to destroy anyone who threatens her control. She has a lovely soprano voice, but occasionally some words were unintelligible when she hit the high notes. It would help if she focused a little more on her diction. Thankfully she also gets the few humorous lines in the show and delivers them with the right amount of sarcasm and wit.
Dubhdara O’Malley is Grace’s father and the chieftain of the Irish clan. Neil Rogers plays the part with a commanding presence and a warm, fatherly tone. His bellowing voice, salt-and-pepper colored beard, and long hair all added to the charm of the character.
Ian Bridgman plays Grace’s drunken, good-for- nothing husband. He obviously relished playing the scoundrel of the show and the audience loved to hate him. Playing drunk on stage can be difficult, but he pulled it off convincingly. Mr. Bridgman was also lucky enough to have the best song in the show, “Boys’ll Be Boys”.
The other star of the show was the scenic design. Theatre in the round can be difficult to do, but scenic designer Wendy Searcy-Woode clearly knows what she’s doing. There were so many fantastic elements on stage. One corner looked like an Irish village, complete with a large house and small model houses. The opposite corner looked like the exterior of a castle and was where most of the scenes took place in the English castle. The Queen’s throne rotated so it then looked like a turret on the castle. The walls were covered in a beautiful mural of the Irish cliffs and ocean. The main thrust of the set was the corner used as the pirate ship. The main ship’s wheel looked great in a dark wood and there were riggings and a small sail as well. The main floor was painted to look like the deck of the ship. It was an immersive experience that made me feel like I was really on a ship at times.
I absolutely love shows with any kind of sword fighting and stage combat. There were quite a few scenes with sword fights and unarmed stage combat. The fight choreography was well done and the actors handled it with relative ease. My major complaint is that the swords used were fake. I imagine the reason they used fake weapons was for safety reasons since the audience is in such close proximity to the combat. But actual stage combat weapons provide a heft and a sound when they clash that you don’t get with plastic weapons.
I also enjoyed the dance choreography by Amy Jones and I wish there had been more of it. The Irish folk dancing and jig are fun to watch. There was also a little bit of Irish step dancing which was made famous by the Michael Flatley’s Riverdance. But since the actors weren’t wearing hard shoes, shoes similar to tap shoes that have fiberglass tips, I missed hearing the satisfying click from the shoes striking the floor when they stomped.
There were a lot of costumes in this show and they all looked fantastic. Costume Designer Jill Hall created some memorable looks for the cast. By far the most incredible pieces were worn by Heather Sturdevant as Queen Elizabeth I. She had a different gown in every scene and they each got progressively more elaborate and beautiful throughout the show. Her final look was a stunning gown with a fan-shaped headpiece. All the English men and women were dressed perfectly. Also the Irish women’s peasant dresses looked great and period specific. The Irish men’s costumes sometimes looked a little too much like a Renaissance faire outfit, but there were still some nice pieces.
The technical elements of the show were a bit of hit and miss. Lighting design by Dan Hall emphasized the warm tones for the Irish countryside and cooler tones for the English castle. Sometimes, however, the cues were a bit off and actors were left in the dark while they were still saying lines. I hope the timing will get better over the course of the performances. Sound design by Richard Gwozdz was good, but sometimes the music was either too loud or too soft and I think the actors couldn’t hear.
Director DeAnn Blair obviously has a lot of passion for this show. She made good use of the stage and directed the actors in a way that made it easy to see the action at all times. She assembled a lot of elements that made this tough show work. I applaud Artisan Center Theater for rising above the lackluster material.
Artisan Center Theater
418 E. Pipeline Rd, Hurst, TX 76053
March 24th – April 15th , 2017
Tickets: For dates, times, and ticket information go to www.artisanct.com or call the box office at 817-284- 1200.