Metro Weekly

DC Theater Review: Signature’s ‘Blackbeard’ struggles to find its sea legs

Style submerges substance in Signature’s hit-or-miss high-seas adventure Blackbeard

Blackbeard at Signature Theatre

Signature Theatre has brought aboard a titanically talented cast and crew for the maiden voyage of Blackbeard (★★★☆☆). An original musical from John Dempsey and Dana Rowe — the writing team behind musicals The Fix and The Witches of Eastwick — it supplies a sheaf of eclectic tunes to tell the tale of “the most infamous pirate of all time.” And for this world premiere production, director Eric Schaeffer and his designers supply a transporting backdrop for the globetrotting adventure.

Yet, despite that considerable thrust, and a supernatural plot that winds its way around the seven seas, Blackbeard’s journey skims across perilously shallow waters and only intermittently satisfies.

The show’s mix of seafaring comedy and swashbuckling derring-do isn’t far off from the creaky but crowd-pleasing formula that floated Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise to the heights of box office Valhalla. And maybe Signature will see blockbuster success with this rowdy pirate escapade, but for all its commercial appeal, Blackbeard still comes off as an especially light snack given the heavy-hitters involved.

The plot sends the dreaded 18th-century pirate Blackbeard (Chris Hoch) and his crew, including trusted first mate Caesar (Kevin McAllister) and greenhorn sailor Roger (Rory Boyd), on a quest for far-flung jewels in order to break a powerful curse. Should they succeed in lifting the curse, they would free the pirate’s former lady love Dominique (Nova Y. Payton), a powerful voodoo sorceress whose feet have been permanently moored to one spot on her island home.

Although she’s agreed to help Blackbeard escape the clutches of the law, led by Virginia’s Lt. Maynard (Ben Gunderson), Dominique has her own agenda. More femme fatale than true friend, she unfurls her plans to the intoxicating mambo groove of “Spellbound” — the show’s standout song carried aloft by Payton, an outstanding singer. Considering the physical limitations of conveying a character who’s literally stuck in one spot, Payton packs a lot of personality, purpose, and atmosphere into her brief appearance.

Blackbeard at Signature Theatre

Similarly, Signature favorite Bobby Smith, doubling as one of Blackbeard’s crew and in one scene as the Norse god Ódinn, simply slays leading the comedic Viking number “Valhalla.” As is the case with “Spellbound” and the memorable opening number “Who Is Blackbeard?”, the songs that work best are those with some tempo.

Rowe’s eclectic rhythms and percussive score — and even staccato lyric refrains like “Blackbeard, Blackbeard/ Blackety-blackety-Blackbeard” — help propel the hearty adventure. But the show’s ballads and more plaintive musical moments tend to drift and plod, despite the best efforts of the onstage ensemble, or conductor Jon Kalbfleisch and his band.

The action and swordplay, of which there are plenty, also register as stiff. Clearly complicated in a technical sense, the show’s many moving parts, from Paul Tate Depoo III’s intricate, evocative sets to Chris Lee’s very active lighting, don’t gather the momentum of a well-oiled machine.

Blackbeard at Signature Theatre

And Blackbeard’s quest doesn’t gather much urgency as a life-or-death mission. Hoch inhabits the larger-than-life character of the notorious sea captain, and conveys the story’s seeming point that Blackbeard, determined to leave his mark on the world, has sought infamy as much as he’s sought treasure. That’s an interesting point to consider vis-à-vis the governing tactics of other notorious leaders. It might be the show’s most interesting point to consider.

A subplot charting the pirate’s search for his long-lost father is rendered with little suspense or meaning, and runs in weak parallel to the story of teenager Roger gaining his sea legs under the tutelage of Blackbeard and Caesar. Boyd sings the part of Roger well, but at the point that this should become the young shipmate’s story, the actor doesn’t grab it by the wheel with true command.

Roger’s quest for adventure, and the tale of Blackbeard’s last voyage dovetail towards the general conclusion that living is its own greatest reward. The journey towards that ho-hum ending, though entertaining at times, and gorgeously costumed every step of the way by designer Erik Teague, covers scant emotional territory. A beautifully-designed but surface spectacle, Blackbeard sails around the world but doesn’t really go anywhere.

Blackbeard runs until July 14 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington. Tickets are $40 to $103. Call (703) 820-9771, or visit www.sigtheatre.org.

André Hereford covers arts and entertainment for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at ahereford@metroweekly.com. Follow him on Twitter at @here4andre.

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