Signature Theatre’s world premiere musical Blackbeard is a cinematic caper with surprising emotional depth and a tight storyline. In considering what a pirate musical might look like, the creative team invites the audience to leave all presumptions below deck and let the entertainment wash over them. The show revels in the adventure of the high seas and provides the camp, comedy, heart, and cheer that a good pirate musical deserves.
The action centers on the titular pirate, Blackbeard, also known as Edward Teach, played with panache by Chris Hoch. When he learns that the British army is attempting to apprehend him, he and his marauding crew hatch a plan to raise their own army consisting of dead pirates they’ve drawn from their watery graves.
Not every joke, song, or sword fight in the show lands, and it takes a while to get into its groove, but the 1 hour and 40 minute voyage with no intermission gets the job done. There are plenty of daring exploits throughout Blackbeard, and even a pleasing plot twist, but at its core, it’s the story of a man lost at sea and struggling to find himself.
Blackbeard really just wants to be an infamous pirate. He’s the kind of pirate who is rankled when people he encounters don’t know of his feats—so much so that his crew might have to ask people to pretend they know him so as not to hurt his feelings. Thanks to the performances from the actors portraying the crew and their synergistic chemistry with Hoch, Blackbeard at times feels like a buccaneering sitcom. And, to the show’s credit, that energy really works.
In Blackbeard’s loyal gang, the always brilliant Kevin McAllister portrays the measured Caesar and Rory Boyd embodies the lovably naive Roger. Many in the cast take on dual roles, with Ben Gunderson playing both crew member Garrick and Blackbeard’s main antagonist Lieutenant Maynard, Lawrence Redmond playing the curmudgeonly Samuel and the drunk Old Man, and Christopher Mueller playing Jake Five Fingers and the formidable wind of Japan named Kamikaze.
Bobby Smith plays both crew member Karl and Norse god Ódinn, and his bouncy, high-spirited Ódinn elevates the production. Likewise, Awa Sal Secka lifts Blackbeard with her dual performances as the endearing Shanti, a member of Blackbeard’s crew, and Kali Maa, the enchanting Indian goddess. Nova Y. Payton is perfectly wicked as the cursed living coral reef Dominique. Her song and dance number “Spellbound” is a highlight of the show and sticks with you long after the curtain falls.
As for the exciting voyage that no good pirate story can function without, Blackbeard nails that too. It’s a bit slow to begin, but once the musical kicks into action, it speeds to the merrymaking. Blackbeard and his crew sail to the Arctic, Japan, and India, attempting to gain the plot devices needed for their fantastical trek to raise a ghost pirate army. It’s an enjoyable ride that pays tribute to all the pirate tales that have come before it.
Paul Tate dePoo III’s scenic design transforms Signature’s stage into a ship deck sailing into a watery abyss, complete with a stuffed seabird that drops down to make humorous appearances throughout the show.
Tricorne hats off to Erik Teague, whose costumes make the pirates look and feel authentic—or, as authentic as we’ve come to expect from pirates in popular media, recapturing a bit of that Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl magic.
Though every song doesn’t hold the audience’s full attention, the book and lyrics by John Dempsey and music by Dana P. Rowe work well. The cast is full of the strong voices needed to pull off some of these songs. Maria Egler, as the ethereal La Mer, has a standout moment in the gorgeous ballad “Sail On,” and the fast-paced, lively “Valhalla” showcases Smith’s skills. Other memorable numbers include “Who is Blackbeard?” and “Into Legend We Sail,” which allow Blackbeard and his crew to shine.
While the Blackbeard in Signature’s show is, deep down, a worthy swashbuckler whose greatest love is the sea and who secretly craves the approval of his father, the notorious real-life Blackbeard was more sinister. Part of the English pirate’s notoriety includes his pillaging and terrorizing of the coast of the American colonies, and later hitting the Caribbean islands to do the same to its ships and towns.
But Hoch imbues the fictional Blackbeard of this production with empathy, charm, and magical beardiness, and by the end of the evening, you’re rooting for him despite all the plundering.
To July 14 at 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. $40–$98. (703) 820-9771. sigtheatre.org.