Signature Theatre is ending its 29th season with a funny, light-hearted look at the end of the era of pirates in the Atlantic Ocean in the 1700s. “Blackbeard” is a fun, mildly ribald romp through the last voyage of Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard. This Eddie has some daddy issues, is growing older and wearier, and has left at least one woman powerfully seeking revenge, but he also gets to rumble with Odin, Kamikaze (the Wind of Japan), and Kali of India.
‘Blackbeard’ is a fun romp to start the summer with . . . and a lovely, breezy look at how to leave a legacy.
After defeating a French warship, Blackbeard (a handsome, wryly funny and bombastic Chris Hoch), and his crew read the mail (after freeing the treasure and rum and guns and ammo and before scuttling the French ship). They learn that the English governor of Virginia has a mission from England—take 50 warships and scuttle Blackbeard permanently. He gives the crew a choice—face the English or retire to Florida (he hears it’s nice). So sets the tone for 90 minutes of round-the-world magical action.
Blackbeard needs help, so he decides to sail to the Caribbean and persuade his old girlfriend, Dominique (a glorious Nova Y. Payton who brings the house down with her song “Spellbound”), who he tricked into turning into a coral reef (he left her for La Mer—the blonde spirit of the sea). She has neither forgotten nor forgiven, but tricks Blackbeard into believing she will help him raise an army of undead pirates from the sea. Off he goes on his quest to procure three gems for her crown that will restore her full powers—one each from Valhalla, Japan and India. Oh, and they have three days to get this done.
As Odin, Bobby Smith, in horns, is pure comic genius. His song and dance with his backup, including Freya and another god (might be Loki, in a grand set of horns), is flawlessly executed and just plain funny. Who can ask for more than dancing gods in horns with jazz hands?
Chris Mueller’s turn as Kamikaze is a whirling dervish of robes and Samurai sword and his special gift, wind-summoning. Thanks to Blackbeard’s crew, they subdue the wind with sails. Then it’s off to India to confront Kali. She doesn’t have a lot of time because she and her followers are heading off to eternal damnation, quite gleefully, so she just gives him the jewel he needs.
Throughout, Blackbeard is ably supported by his crew—frankly, they’re better at planning and executing his vision and putting the brakes on his plan to retire to Florida. Kevin McAllister as Caesar, Ben Gunderson as Garrick, Lawrence Redmond as Samuel, and Awa Sal Secka as Shanti are the administrative geniuses behind his plans. In that respect, it’s reminiscent of a modern start-up—you have the visionary leader, but someone has to flesh out the plans.
There’s a sweet subplot involving Roger (Rory Boyd), a stowaway they found in a carpet in the French ship who signs on with Blackbeard. Young and bound for glory, he gives Blackbeard the opportunity to live on in history as a “broth of a man.”
Maria Engler lends her incredible voice to La Mer (and also Morgan) as she sweeps hauntingly through the piece. She’s Blackbeard’s muse and his love and fate. As a Norse god, she also rocks a set of horns too.
The set is designed by Paul Tate DePoo III and it is a glorious mélange of lands and the ship. One of the neatest special effects is when all goes nearly dark and dead pirates come marching out from the huge doors—life-size skeleton puppets that march and turn on a dime while menacing with swords.
The costumes by Erik Teague are spot-on. The fantasy is brought to vivid life especially by Payton’s coral queen (the only thing she can move as she slowly turns into a reef is her head and arms); the creatures that make up a living coral are eerie as they scale her body. And Engler’s La Mer is a vision of the changing, pulsating sea in blues and greens and teals.
The cast is rounded out by Jessica Bennett, Ian Anthony Coleman and Bob McDonald. All of the cast, except Hoch as Blackbeard, play multiple roles, and the costume changes from pirates to Kali’s followers, to French soldiers to English soldiers, to gods, and additionally, in Redmond’s case, to the Old Man (aka White Beard) are dizzying in their speed.
This world premiere by Dana P. Rowe (music) and John Dempsey (book and lyrics) is ably directed by Eric Schaeffer and smashingly choreographed by Matthew Gardiner. Jon Kalbfleisch conducts the live orchestra; as usual, this adds depth to the show.
“Blackbeard” is a fun romp to start the summer with (and frankly, the idea of being in the sea is alluring in this heat), and a lovely, breezy look at how to leave a legacy.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
“Blackbeard,” runs through July 14, 2019, Signature Theatre, Arlington, VA. For more information, please click here.