I have no idea who the “real” Blackbeard might have been. But I raise a cup (and maybe a cutlass) to Signature Theatre’s epic, cheeky vision of the dude and his derring-do. Envisioned by Signature Theatre Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer, the world premiere of Blackbeard is a summertime hit; perfect for that time of the year when subtext and a scolding can take a back seat to summer frolic.
Surrounded by a gaggle of freedom-loving co-conspirators, Blackbeard is on his very own Holy Grail adventure that is powered by sixteen original musical numbers. The book and lyrics are by John Dempsey and music by Dana P. Rowe. Music is co-orchestrated by David Holcenberg and Scott Wasserman. Signature veteran Jon Kalbleisch plays piano and conducts a pumped band of seven musicians. The overall musical mood is percussive with trombone flourishes. It is spirited, lively, and generally light-hearted.
The show’s setup is simple enough. The time is maybe 1718 or so. The location somewhere in the Caribbean. The days of the Pirate may be slipping away. Governments find pirates more than a nuisance and Blackbeard learns he’s wanted by the British. What is to be done? Blackbeard and his crew embark on an implausible 72-hour journey across the globe to the likes of The Arctic, Japan, and India in hopes of raising an army of undead pirates. Along the way, Blackbeard has his mettle tested by a number of graphic novel-worthy heroes. Oh, and he befriends a young stowaway named Roger who is on his own adventure. But, no more of these mere factoids. Let’s get on with the show.
Chris Hoch is no cardboard cutout pirate. With his piercing eyes, fine voice, and swashbuckling attitude, his Blackbeard is fun, not fearsome (well, mostly). Hoch is a pirate with a long beard and a warm heart. Kevin McAllister is his equally big-hearted ship’s mate. McAllister’s rich baritone voice when he sings in the who-am-I type songs such as “To Be a Pirate” is show-stopping. Rory Boyd is a fine presence as the youthful stow-away who becomes not only a companion to the pirates but ultimately their storyteller. Ben Gunderson portrays Blackbeard’s military antagonist, a feckless Lt. Maynard.
As Dominique, Nova Y. Payton is a love interest and nemesis for pirate Blackbeard. She hits her role out of the park. Not only is she an enduring feisty presence befitting her character, but hot damn, she takes over the production when she belts out “Spellbound,” a song about her character’s magical powers over others. Basically, the lyrics say “don’t mess with Dominique.”
Kudos to the protean Bobby Smith. As a Norse god named Odinn, Smith is simply a playful, impish lark as he sings a nonsense song “Valhalla.” (Smith can do no wrong for me when I see him in a Signature production). Maria Egler as a visionary character named “La Mer” sings a direction-setting tune called “Sail On” that gives Blackbeard his share of trepidation.
Lawrence Redmond has a cute turn as the Old Man character. Christopher Mueller is Comic-Con worthy as the Japanese icon Kamikaze and Awa Sal Secka is a robust presence as Kali Maa, an Indian figure of veneration.
As for the creative production values of Blackbeard, Signature has left nothing to chance. The show’s staging includes a humorous stampede of dancing over a faux ship’s deck and a nifty skeleton line dance originated by Matthew Gardiner. There are several well-choreographed sword and stick fights (kudos to Casey Kaleba for the audacious nature of the close quarters fight choreography and, of course, to his intrepid charges for pulling them off). There is some over-the-top attire that curators of the Met Gala should come down to see. Tip-of-the-hat to Erik Teague for his vision and implementation and to wig designer Anne Nesmith.
The intricate set design for Blackbeard is nifty and busy (in the good sense of the word), featuring a ship’s deck with plenty of moving parts including a turn-table that goes up-and-down, rope rigging, flying and falling objects and a murky place of entry for characters. There is smoke. There are ersatz candles. There are moving illuminated objects. (If a particular song did not keep me fully occupied, well, there was always something to look at). The set design is by Paul Tate DePoo III, lighting design by Chris Lee, and sound design by Ryan Hickey
Blackbeard is an action-packed treat; yet one with a message about living life as you are. It is live and animated. It is a hearty tale full of exaggeration. It is as brisk as a summertime beach read.
So get out of your work clothes this summer and go find your playful inner child. Enjoy as you take your own bounty.
Running Time: About one hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.
Piano/conductor Jon Kalbleisch
Reeds Sergio Acosta
Trombone Dan Pendley
Violin/Mandolin Bob Spates
Guitar Jim Roberts
Bass Max Murray
Drums Dave Murray
Percussion John Patton