Arts & Entertainment

Fantastical ‘Blackbeard’ musical blends pirate legend and history

Chris Hoch, foreground, is Blackbeard in ‘Blackbeard,’ a musical recently at the Signature Theatre, Arlington, Va. Photo by Christopher Mueller

Editor’s note: The Ocracoke Observer learned of a new musical about Blackbeard playing at the Signature Theater in Arlington, Virginia, and a college student studying English who wanted to review it. 

By Max Patten

“I’ll do it the impossible way!” bellows Chris Hoch’s Blackbeard several times in the eponymous musical when presented with epic challenges during a mythic journey.

The pirate, who once terrorized coastlines and hid on Ocracoke, North Carolina, between raids, is depicted as an adventurous man in search of his own myth in a new musical, “Blackbeard,” which in mid-July concluded a three-week debut run at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia.

Written by librettist-lyricist Joseph Dempsey (“The Fix,” “Brother Russia”) and composer Dana P. Rowe, “Blackbeard” tackles the legend of Blackbeard by imagining a fantastical adventure in his last escapades before his defeat and death off Ocracoke in 1718.

Directed by Eric Schaeffer, who also is the founder and executive director of the Signature, British Royal Navy Lt. Robert Maynard (Ben Gunderson) is on the hunt to finally put down the high seas most enthralling villain.

Nova Y. Payton is Dominique in ‘Blackbeard’ at the Signature Theatre, Arlington, Va. Photo by Christopher Mueller

In an interview, Dempsey described his intention to “tell a tall tale about tall tales” with the quasi-historical, often fantastical musical. Blackbeard and diverse crew of freedom-loving pirates embark on a three-day journey to make history by raising an army of the undead–one last stand against the end of an era. With its supernatural fixtures, its clear that Dempsey and company have been influenced by recent pirate media, notably Disney’s resiliently popular “Pirates of the Caribbean” films.

Through a brisk hour and 40 minutes, the efforts of Dempsey, Schaeffer, and a highly skilled suite of production effects and performances manifest into a globetrotting musical that cuts through its maritime setting and myriad diverse locations with a lively pace and catchy songs, accompanied with an appropriately grand orchestra.

Hoch (who has starred in Broadway) plays a Blackbeard who is relatable in his insecurity as a yet-to-be-legend, yet every bit as charismatic and confident as he needs to be when the script calls for it. Gregarious and heart pounding chanteys like “Into Legend We Sail” keep the sails — and pace — blowing throughout the play, while songs like “Samsara” sell the transformation of Signature’s MAX theater from a pirate ship into various exotic settings the crew finds itself in.

Production flourishes like the massive (literally) coral dress of the undead witch Dominique (Nova Payton) and actors who sword fight and swing on ropes add to the adventure. Simpler tricks like tactically deployed smoke and different “day” and “night” lighting add to the grandness and scope of the adventure, opening up Schaeffer and his crew’s ambitions form storytelling beyond the Signature’s relatively small stage.

While most of the play is supposed to take place on deck, the story takes liberties to display letter readings, ocean travel montages and internal character moments as surreal additions.

An example is La Mer (Maria Egler), the metaphorical muse of the sea, who gives the pirate advice throughout the story in stylized dream sequences. Further elaborate costume design does much of the heavy lifting to establish mythic settings, from Valhalla to samurais off the coast of Japan.

As fantastical as all the play’s visuals and settings are, the core message speaks to a historical and more general truth that Dempsey hopes to communicate: the theme of freedom and living up to myth. Lt. Maynard and other colonial officials are portrayed as stiff and intensely hierarchical, while Blackbeard and crew on deck operate under much more egalitarian conditions; sea criminals all in it to survive and thrive together.

“I mean, that’s the thing the pirates have always been about,” he said. “It was very much a democracy on the ships, and I think we still respond to that to this day.”

The liberal ideals and imagined romance of a pirate’s life at sea is arguably why men like Blackbeard live on in myth today.

Their real histories and theatrical presences alike parallel an American infatuation with making one’s own story as grand and fantastical as it can possibly be. Is it any wonder Americans obsess over Blackbeard’s elaborate costume and presentation choices, such as fuses in his beard?

Dempsey sees Blackbeard as “a man who wanted to be a myth and then became sort of the driving force of the story.”  Therefore, his musical is less a pure historical exercise and more of meta fictional parable about what it means to be yourself.

The young pirate recruit Roger (Rory Boyd) comes to stand in for the audience, witnessing Blackbeard’s legend as an excitable every-man who won’t stand for the death of the pirate lifestyle. He represents a new generation enthralled by high seas and their vast opportunity for both wealth and self-definition.

The “impossible way” Blackbeard boasts to Roger and the audience about, it turns out, is the gap between who you start out as and who you end up as.

A largely family-oriented audience clapped frequently after every major scene and buzz in the lobby afterwards had children excitedly recounting the adventure while parents and relatives wondered out loud how much of what they saw was accurate to history.

About the future of the production, the audience response and critical reception, Dempsey suggested he will make slight narrative tweaks should future runs happen.

“The songs, the basic score of the show, the basic story of the show works,” he said.

Now, Dempsey wants to retouch the story’s pacing.

“This is one of those rare shows where I actually think a little more breathing room would help,” he continued. “I don’t think anyone’s ever said that about a musical before.”

The future of “Blackbeard” is still not set in stone, but based on the reaction of audiences in suburban Washington, D.C., Ocracoke’s iconic swashbuckler might lead the way for a more adventurous age of storytelling in musical theater.

Ben Gunderson (Lt. Maynard) and Chris Hoch (Blackbeard) in”Blackbeard,’ which recently closed at the Signature Theatre, Arlington, Va. Photo by Christopher Mueller

Max Patten is a rising sophomore at the University of Virginia, studying English and liberal arts. He has written arts reviews and done photography for The (UVA) Cavalier Daily and has contributed to Charlottesville Weekly and Axios.

 

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