Sink and Swim

Hart & Berlin outlive a numbing Irish stew

Don't be surprised if you spot scouts from major drug companies in the audience at Pirate Queen: The sedative powers of this lump of aesthetic Ambien are so strong that, if somebody found a way to put it in capsule form, it might wipe out insomnia forever. For a show of giant resources and giant ambitions to produce this degree of numbness, it must contain some secret ingredient, but close attention to its details has produced only an ever stronger desire to nod out and forget it ever happened. Coming as a windup to the dismal parade of recent disasters that has included The Woman in White, Tarzan, and Lestat, this latest work by the perpetrators of Les Miz and Miss Saigon pretty much spells the end of any artistic pretensions that misguided folk once vested in the megamusical: There's nothing in *Pirate Queen* but the shrink-wrap and the Styrofoam packaging; whatever actual substance it was meant to contain has evaporated in transit, if indeed it ever existed.

To cap the joke of Pirate Queen's dull thud, its press performances occurred the same weekend as the Encores! staged concert of Irving Berlin and Moss Hart's 1932 Face the Music. No expert would claim that this trifling trinket ranked high on the list of the musical theater's artistic achievements. "Loosely structured" is almost too polite a term for its book, and some of its songs, like the unwisely restored cutout "Two Cheers Instead of Three," are not even second-drawer Irving Berlin. And yet Face the Music was alive, still feisty, and thoroughly delightful, not quite 76 trombone years after its premiere, while the brand-new Pirate Queen was dead in the stagnant water of its own earnestness—politically correct earnestness at that. The authors are so anxious to make Grania O'Malley, their Irish heroine, a wholly innocent victim of English tyranny that they don't even live up to their title. This must be the only pirate work in the history of entertainment in which no acts of piracy are committed; its swashes only buckle when a British warship attacks angelic Grania and her loyal crew—all loyal, that is, except her husband. Men, like Britishers, are automatically suspect oppressors, as Grania finds out when she drops in for a bit of View-like girl talk with Queen Elizabeth I. Yes, kids, Bess Tudor (whose costumes, by Martin Pakledinaz, provide the show's only visual excitement) had her men troubles, too, though apparently nothing else in her reign ever bothered her except Grania's unseen piracies.

Details

Pirate Queen
By Boublil, Schonberg, Maltby Jr., and Dempsey
Hilton Theatre
213 West 42nd Street
212-307-4100

Face the Music
By Moss Hart and Irving Berlin
City Center Encores! (closed)

If the book of a musical is going to be wall-to-wall horse-pucky like this, it's far better off being free-spirited and fantasticated, which explains why Face the Music's wholly preposterous Depression story, about lovably crooked NYPD cops who bankroll a washed-up Broadway producer with an endless supply of graft from their little tin boxes, seemed, in contrast to Pirate Queen's, both coherent and pertinent. Its fun quotient, greased by a liberal supply of Hart's stinging wisecracks, was so high that nobody bothered to quibble over its lapses. The romantic leads, Jeffry Denman and Meredith Patterson, struck no romantic spark but danced and sang terrifically; Eddie Korbich and Mylinda Hull, as a squabbling vaudeville duo, danced even better, and struck sparks, too. Director John Rando kept the comedy speeding; Randy Skinner's giddy choreography made the numbers add to the laughs. And ruling over the clownish antics as a theaterstruck cop's wife, Judy Kaye answered the never pondered question of what our culture might have been if Mary Boland and Jennie Tourel were the same person. They and their colleagues had a weekend's worth of joy, soon to be memorialized on CD. Pirate Queen's hardworking leads, Stephanie J. Block and Linda Balgord, may have months of performances ahead: They deserve, along with every cent of their paychecks, our pity.

 
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