Thursday, October 26, 2006

Chicago Trip -- the Pirate Queen

Tammy told me she had a surprise for me. She gets this little giggly grin when she has surprises, and then inevitably comes the question "Do you want to know what it is?" My customary response is "Wouldn't that spoil the effect of the surprise?" -- this is something of a litany in our house -- much like "The Lord be with you" "And also with you"

Usually, I wind up being told about the surprise -- and this time was no exception. Tammy told me that on our trip to Chicago we would be going to see a new musical from the creators of Les Miserables, the musical.

Some background. When my parents took me to New York in the 11th grade, all I wanted to do was see theatre (I was very involved in theatre at that time -- eomehow they managed to make me also see the United Nations, the Met Museum, and Central Park -- but they also took me to see lots of great theater on Broadway -- I have great parents). Somehow, they had gotten us front row tickets for a Boublil and Schoenberg's adaptation of Les Miserables, which in 1988 was still a relatively new production. Set in post-revolutionary france, it is the story of Jean Valjean, a fugitive from an the law who is trying to rebuild his life. Valjean finds God and dedicates himself to trying to be a good decent person -- he and his adopted daughter are pursued by the relentless Inspector Javert and hounded by the villanous con-man and extortionist Thenardier. All these characters get caught in the curious blend of idealism and revolt and revolution in mid 1800s Paris. The musical is basically a rock opera -- big and splashy with lots of passion, energy, gunfire, big stages, loves lost, deeds of nobility, betrayal, reconciliation, and a ripping good ending that hints at the hope of resurrection and reconciliation in the world beyond. The villans were complex and compelling. And the heroes were noble and strong. It was the perfect musical for a Lord of the Rings loving 17 year old.

I memorized the soundtrack. I'd regularly sing the whole thing on drives from college back home. I even got a ticket once for running a traffic light while I was immersed in singing along with the soundtrack. The musical inspired me to slog through Victor Hugo's immense tome (hundreds of richly detailed pages -- each one of them a sermon -- well worth the investment of time) and to enjoy the Liam Neeson/Jeffery Rush portrayals in the 1998 version of the film (IMDB lists 19 different film versions -- one as far back as 1917 -- read the wikipedia article on Les Miserables -- it's had huge cultural impact). I joined PBS to receive the complementary VCR tape of the 10th anniversary concert featuring the "all star cast".

Get the idea? I kind of liked the musical. (did I really talk about "a bit excessive" in my last post?)

Now, put yourself back into my chair 4 weeks ago when Tammy told me that we were seeing a new musical from the same collaborators who adapted Les Miserables to stage. I was thrilled. I went straight to the website for, this musical, titled The Pirate Queen -- it looked good. Ireland, pirates, celtic music, dance, swordfighting. I couldn't wait.

So after a great meal of authentic Chicago pizza, we settled into our seats at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. We thrilled to the swelling music of the overture. And we let the story begin. It's the story of Grace O'Malley, a contemporary of Queen Elizabeth. Both Grace and Elizabeth grow up in the shadow of their fathers who were leaders of their respective peoples. Grace grows up with love and affection and affirmation -- and she learns that leadership comes with hard choices for the good of the community. Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII is most conspicuous in his absence -- she says at her coronation that she'll be just like him as a ruler. And she's stern and harsh, especially against these upstart pirates in Ireland. As these two strong women set themselves against each other, there is bloodshed, violence, and lots of stylized stage swordfighting. The play comes to a climactic resolution when the two women meet face to face and speak as woman to woman, rather than as ruler to ruler. They reach an understanding and banish the scheming courtier who was playing the conflict to his advantage.

The worst I can say about this is that it's a very good show -- lots of great Irish dancing -- outstanding performances (the villans, while well played, were written rather flat -- I saw no evidence of the streak of nobility that made inspector Javert so compelling, nor of the ruthless cleverness of Thenardier). Memorable songs and a stunning set/costume design guarantee that this will be an enjoyable show. But it's not Les Miz.

Nor could it ever be. How could anything compare to the mythic proportions that show took on in my mind. It would be unfair to compare the two. I saw Les Miz when I was an impressionable 17 year old filled with the starry eyed dreams of youth. I read the same story now, and I no longer identify with the herioic young Marius. I cherish the play for the place it held in my life a decade ago. Just like aging baby boomers who cherish Woodstock (and believe me, I really just don't get that), so have I treated Les Miz. Therefore The Pirate Queen could never fill that role for me.

But it might some day for my daughters.....

Like I said, I keyed into the part of the story being about fathers and daughters. This show features strong women who are heroes. Who knows.....