Who doesn’t love a good pirate story?
Captain Jack Sparrow may be the first swashbuckling buccaneer to come to the minds of many, thanks to the endless tales about the madcap fictional character from Disney’s popular “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise.
Right now, however, Signature Theatre is putting the spotlight on a real-life pirate as it takes audiences on an exhilarating ride through the adventures of Blackbeard. The world-première musical about the world’s most fearsome pirate is simply fun, fun, fun.
Walking into the Arlington company’s MAX Theatre, you can sense the excitement in the air for this new show from John Dempsey and Dana P. Rowe, who once turned the ’80s flick “The Witches of Eastwick” into a musical. Paul Tate DePoo III’s wooden plank-covered set—with scattered wax-dripping candles, pendant lamps and swinging ropes—appears like a scene from an elaborate theme-park attraction. There’s even a flying albatross that drops down during the show. (DePoo is no stranger to ship-building; he brought the Titanic into the same space in 2016). Chris Lee’s fantastic lighting palette, which bathes the show in dreamy shades of blues and greens, completes the maritime mood.
You will feel like you’re aboard Blackbeard’s boat, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, living among his motley crew of male and female pirates.
With razor-sharp direction from Eric Schaeffer, “Blackbeard” slashes up the history books as it brings the legendary British pirate to life with lots of fantastical touches. After taking on the French, Blackbeard learns the British army is after him and goes on a quest to raise an undead pirate army. The powerful sea witch Dominque, who’s trapped in a coral reef because of that darned Blackbeard and covered in sea anemones, has tasked him with bringing her back three jewels: the Sapphire of the Arctic, the Pearl of the Orient and the Diamond of Bombay. What follows are encounters with the hard-partying Norse gods, stick-wielding ninjas and the Indian goddess Kali Maa.
“Blackbeard” playfully chronicles his journeys to three countries in three days in this fast-moving 100-minute musical. And Broadway actor Chris Hoch is a catch, commanding the stage as the dashing buccaneer, who’s caught between 50 British ships and a vengeful witch. He’s delightful in both the action-packed and comedic scenes, but also able to relay his character’s softer side during the quieter moments. There’s a sweet father-and-son subplot worked into the family-friendly story, as Blackbeard hesitantly takes a young stowaway named Roger under his wing and shows him the ropes of life on the high seas. Blackbeard is trying to make a name for himself and come out from under the shadow of his father, Whitebeard.
Blackbeard’s merry band of pirates valiantly support their fearless leader, like his West African first mate Caesar, although a few seem like they want to give up their sword-fighting days and just retire. “I heard lovely things about Florida,” says Karl the pirate.
“Blackbeard” is not a perfect show, although it is thoroughly entertaining, with a pirate story filled with adventure and vibrant characters. “Valhalla,” sung by the always terrific Bobby Smith as the cheery Odinn, could have been trimmed, and some scenes and relationships could have been fleshed out more.
The cast is uniformly excellent and some actors take on two or three roles. Maria Egler, who plays the pirate Morgan, is enchanting as the sea goddess La Mer. Nova Y. Payton delivers a fiery performance as Dominique; her character is reminiscent of another powerful sea witch, Ursula from “The Little Mermaid.” In “Spellbound,” her outsized vocals seriously blow everyone else’s out of the water. And Kevin McAllister’s Caesar, one of the few characters who has some emotional depth, draws you in immediately and has you invested in his fate.
With all the swordplay, funny quips and heave-hoing onboard this compact but mighty ship, “Blackbeard” is a seaworthy summertime treat, and it’s a story that families can totally plunge into.