Thursday, June 07, 2007

It Wasn't Riverdance

Pirates are hot right now, but The Pirate Queen never caught fire. The musical spectacle was received well enough in Chicago, where it played on a trial basis before making its way east to the Big Apple, but audience polls and random tinkering did nothing to improve the problems that were exposed during the Chicago run.

The stage play relates the life of Grace O'Malley, a 16th Century Irish woman and pirate, and it should have been a grand story. Moya Doherty and John McColgan, who gave the world Riverdance and made a fortune in the process, were the producers and promoters who hoped to bring their Riverdance magic to another show-stopping show. With book and music by the creators of Les Miserables, it sounded, on paper, like it couldn't lose. And yet it did.

New York critics were so brutally savage that the tone of the negative reviews made the news. To a man, they hated the production, couldn't figure out what was going on, derided the plot and the story line, and made a mockery of the lavish production. The ticket-buying public heard and obeyed. Sales declined, the audience shrank, and Mr. McColgan and Ms. Doherty are pulling the plug, turning out the lights, and going to Europe. Their pet project, the life and times of a legendary Irish woman, lasted only about two months.

They hope that Europe will take to the grandiose musical numbers, the elaborate costumes and stunning special effects. Indeed, if Europe does not, the producers stand to lose a tremendous amount of money. Estimates put the cost of the production at $16 million, with only about $7 million recouped in poor sales.

Critics complained that the show seemed to lack a point. There was music and singing, actors moved about the stage, but there was no central focus. Hard to say if more tinkering with the script could fix things at this point, or if a complete rewrite would be needed to make the show more appealing to the viewer. Maybe the writers left out too much back story, assuming that everyone knew of Grace O'Malley, when the American audience knew nothing about pirates beyond Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow character.

There's always the Riverdance option, of course, if the producers should elect to tone down the costly parts of the spectacle. Put Grace O'Malley on the road, with dozens of touring companies playing venues both large and small. It could be that The Pirate Queen is not Broadway material, but it could play to sell-out crowds in Peoria.

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