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Cheese Ahoy!

The Pirate Queen plays out like a parody of bombastic musicals, but a new Oliver Twist is devilishly dark.

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Illustration by Paul Willoughby  

You can stop wonderingif you’ve been wonderinghow a Céline Dion jukebox musical might sound. Without using her actual songs, The Pirate Queen distills enough of her essence to suggest how dismaying the genuine article might be. The bombast, the flutes, the refusal to acknowledge, however fleetingly, the corn spilling off the stage: What you’re hearing is a two-and-a-half-hour meditation on the love theme from Titanic.

You’re also hearing heredity in action. This tale of lady buccaneer Grace O’Malley’s adventures springs from a collaboration between Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, the songwriters of Les Misérables (abetted here by Richard Maltby Jr. and John Dempsey), and Moya Doherty and John McColgan, the producers of Riverdance. From the authors, the show inherits saturation: a sung-through story in which headstrong young Grace belts out her notes (head back, arms out, spotlight flaring), and her eager, jilted beau crams five or six syllables into musical phrases that better suit two. From the producers comes the well-known phalanx of dead-arm dancers: clippity-clip-clomp go the grinning peasants in earth tones. That sounds silly, you might be saying. In fact, it comes as a relief, offering proofhowever twistedthat we’re in Ireland after all. Until then, a seascape backdrop in purple, pink, and orange suggests gift-shop Tahiti.

Just as I planned, no one here but these helpless women, sneers Lord Bingham, perfidious minion of Queen Elizabeth I. William Youmans, excellent as ever, finds the right style to play the villain, and escapes the evening unharmed. As Grace, Stephanie J. Block nearly does the same: This woman can sing. As for her father, the able Jeff McCarthy has my condolences. No actor should be asked to play a fearsome pirate chieftain while dressed like a cartoon wizard. His wig of cascading gray curlswhich could, in theory, be kind of hard-core for a medieval outlawkeeps falling in his face, forcing him to flip his hair extremely un-bad-ass-edly. Not for the first time, I thought I might be watching a Christopher Guest parody.

Or a radical, next-gen feminist tract? For all of Grace’s righteous Hibernian ass-kicking in Act One, the show’s climax is two ladies talking. It’s an enlightened choice, though not a very satisfying one. When I saw the show, it drew the kind of crowd that cheered when the baddies got killed. I’m with them on that count: A big, boisterous pirate epic is something I’d love to see. But this relationship is doomed from the start if we can’t agree on something up front: No more codpieces, please, ever.

Neil Bartlett hasn’t just wrapped Charles Dickens’s dialogue around some stage directions and set it down in a theater. In his adaptation of Oliver Twist by Theatre for a New Audience, a great novel is kicked into gear and sent racing. This is melodrama from the old school: big performances, playing to the crowd, and real footlights that get a workout casting sinister shadows. London has rarely seemed so brutal, dirty, and dark.

Even if you know the famous story of poor, orphaned Oliver, Bartlett gives it fresh suspense. When the boy asks for more in the workhouse, you laugh when Mr. Bumble hyperventilates, then tremble as Mrs. Bumble rages on him. It’s an open question as to which is worse: the physical abuse that the lonely, spindly kid absorbs from Bill Sykes (he of lowlife beard and linebacker arms), or the verbal kind, when Mr. Bumble calls him a naughty orphan which nobody can’t love.

Rae Smith completes the gloomy scene with fine, shabby-baroque costumes, particularly for the Artful Dodger (Carson Elrod, the best I’ve seen him). The company wobbles, but it has a secret weapon in a quartet of supporting actors: Remo Airaldi and Karen MacDonald as the Bumbles, Will LeBow as Mr. Brownlow, and Thomas Derrah in a series of effervescent comic parts. In younger days, I watched them perform a million roles at the American Repertory Theatre. I’m delighted to see that I haven’t been misremembering: These marvelous actors really can do anything, and play together like a dream.

The Pirate Queen
By Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg. Hilton Theatre.

Oliver Twist
By Charles Dickens. Gerald W. Lynch Theater. Through April 15.


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