The Internet Theater Magazine of Reviews, Features, Annotated Listings
A CurtainUp DC Review
What is Blackbeard? audiences ask. It is a new musical with a trite book with catchy lyrics by John Dempsey and hummable music by Dan P. Rowe, that is having its world premiere at Signature Theatre.
Is it satire? No, it's not witty enough. Is it farce? Sometimes, when it is at its most ridiculous. In one of many asides, there's a superfluous reference to Wagner's Ring Cycle, which is fun if you get the joke (most of the audience did not) . . .but it's also an example of the writers not being able to decide which way they want to go. The strongest laugh of the evening followed Blackbeard's "It's nobody's first choice, but let's go to Virginia." Signature Theatre is located in northern Virginia.
"It's a children's story, it's not supposed to make sense," one of the characters imparts. So . . .the voyage that Blackbeard takes its audience on is the story of a pirate, the son of a pirate, who sails the seven seas in search of not clear what. He and his shipmates, by and large a hapless lot, sail north to Valhalla, where he engages in a drinking contest with the Norsemen who are sporting over-the-top headdresses. This leads not only to a hangover for Blackbeard but a marvelous patter song, "Valhalla" sung by Odinn (a nice performance by Bobby Smith).
And then they sail again, encountering along the way Blackbeard's ex, Dominique (Nova Y. Payton), who has the voice and the comic chops to pull off the melodies and absurdities of "Spellbound," possibly the best number in the show.) In the 27 years since they last saw one another . He's grown a beard, and she, who has been buried in the brine, has acquired a layer of barnacles.
Dominique is no slouch when it comes to making demands of Blackbeard, played with suitably swashbuckling style and a strong, sonorous voice by Chris Hoch. She wants jewels such as a sapphire from India, a pearl from the Orient. That gives Blackbeard and crew the excuse they've been looking for to travel the seven seas. High tides, a ship wreck, a stowaway joining the crew (especially in the finale, a really nice star turn by Rory Boyd as Roger); also a chance encounter with a gruff old man (played with just the right amount of humor and grouchiness by Lawrence Redmond). These give varying vignettes of life at sea and on shore.
There's a lot to like about Blackbeard. Paul Tate Depoo III's set includes a Jolly Roger sail, ropes, gangplanks, a trap door, and oceanic effluence. Erik Teague's costumes, while verging on the overkill, are opulent to an extreme. Along with the set and costume, there are theatrical tricks that will not be divulged here but I have to confess that the sight gag involving an albatross was very funny indeed. Casey Kaleba's fight scenes are thrilling. Kudos to Chris Lee for his lighting, particularly when emulating a rough tide and Ryan Hickey for his sound design: cue the seagulls.
While the story does not get adequate exposition in the opening, the atmospherics and choreography are what carry the show. The supremely talented Matthew Gardiner did the choreography which is full of surprises — dancing skeletons for instance —and originality in a balletic handling of orange orbs on an otherwise dark stage. Captain of this ship/show is Eric Schaeffer who worked previously with Dempsey and Rowe on their The Fix.
It is the fashion now to omit an intermission. Blackbeard, currently running for 100 minutes, is too long. But maybe Demsey, Rowe and Schaeffer wanted to strut their stuff in front of potential backers for future productions. There's plenty to work with but Blackbeard is not yet a smooth-sailing musical.
Book & Lyrics by John Dempsey
Music by Dana P. Rowe
Directed by Eric Schaeffer
Scenic Design by Paul Tate Depoo III
Costume Design by Erik Teague
Lighting Design by Chris Lee
Sound Design by Ryan Hickey
Choreography by Matthew Gardiner
Fight Choreography by Casey Kaleba Music Direction by David Holcenberg
Cast: Jessica Bennett (Swing, u/s Sally Dominique); Rory Boyd (Roger); Ian Anthony Coleman (Swing, Fight Captain); Maria Egler (Morgan/La Mer); Ben Gunderson (Garrick/Lt. Maynard); Chris Hoch (Blackbeard); Kevin McAllister (Caesar); Christopher Mueller (Jake/Kamikaze); Nova Y. Payton (Sally/Dominique/Dance Captain); Lawrence Redmond (Samuel/Old Man); Awa Sal Secka (Shanti/Kali Maa); Bobby Smith (Karl/Odinn).
Running time: 100 minutes, no intermission. Signature Theatre; www.SigTheatre.org; performances June 18 through July 14, 2019. Reviewed by Susan Davidson at June 26, 2019 performance.
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