NEW YORK - In the first minutes of
The Pirate Queen
- the new Broadway musical by the team responsible for
- it's tough to tell whether we're watching Irish heroine Grace O'Malley or Wonder Woman.
Dressed as a boy, O'Malley sneaks aboard her father's pirate ship. A virtual Yentl at sea, she's revealed after saving the craft during a raging storm.
Daddy's pretty angry that his girl's on board, but he thinks it through with sentimental lyrics, enough to turn any Irish-clan-leading pirate into a liberal parent. So she can stay, walking the plank being the alternative.
Seconds later, British sailors clamber aboard, blades shimmer, and Grace O'Malley saves Dad's life in the swordplay. We're maybe 15 minutes into the show.
The biggest problem with The Pirate Queen - which has its moments - is that it begins on a high pitch and remains feverish throughout, never earning its climaxes.
It doesn't develop characters, either - it jails them, in single, flat dimensions. It has an unrelentingly stirring score by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, with lyrics that are, by turns, clever or lame, and mostly sung through. Everything works best during milestone scenes in Grace O'Malley's life: her wedding and the christening of her son, when Carl Leavy Joyce's choreography turns riverdance.
Red-haired Stephanie J. Block (The Boy From Oz) plays O'Malley with fiery determination. She's charismatic, despite being given no room to grow, or even to age, in a story that spans her life. Too bad, because in real life O'Malley must have been a near-mystical character.
Born in 1530 to a clan of seafarers, she became a great defender of Ireland as England was sacking it, and a longtime thorn in Queen Elizabeth I's otherwise protected side. The two were strong in a world where women were forced into weakness - the theme that drives the show's better second act.
Elizabeth is played with a vigorous sneer by Linda Balgord, whose lovely soprano duels with the loud orchestra and whose costumes by Martin Pakledinaz are knockouts. But even here, the rich eye candy is unabated, in the spirit of a show that comes at you like a hammer. Ireland, that nation of tears and triumphs and so much nuance, deserves better.
The Pirate Queen
Book by Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Richard Maltby Jr., music by Schönberg and lyrics by Boublil, Maltby and John Dempsey. Directed by Frank Galati, choreography by Carol Leavy Joyce, scenery by Eugene Lee, costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, lighting by Kenneth Posner, sound by Jonathan Deans.
The cast: Stephanie J. Block (Grace O'Malley), Hadley Fraser (Tiernan), Jeff McCarthy (Dubhdara), Linda Balgord (Queen Elizabeth I), Marcus Chait (Donal), William Youmans (Sir Richard Bingham).
Playing at the Hilton Theatre, 213 W. 42d St., New York. Tickets: $50 to $110. Information: 1-800-755-4000 or www.thepiratequeen.com.