“Blackbeard” at Signature Theatre is Delightfully Tuneful and Fun, but Touching as Well

By Sara Dudley Brown, Theatre Editor

Awa Sal Secka (Shanti), Kevin McCallister (Caesar) Chris Hoch (Blackbeard) Christopher Mueller (Jake) and Lawrence Redmond (Samuel) in “Blackbeard” at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Who knew that beneath the legendary Blackbeard’s pirate swagger was possibly a heart of gold and a desire to leave a legacy of something other than that of a scary menace of the seas? “Who was Blackbeard anyway,” you may ask and further, “who cares?” Well, you might at the conclusion of Signature Theatre’s World Premiere Musical “Blackbeard” with music and lyrics by the brilliant team of Dana Rowe and John Dempsey, who gave us the marvelous “Witches of Eastwick” and “The Fix”.

Here is what “Blackbeard is NOT…it’s not a retelling of “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” or Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride! This pirate saga is a fantastical musical reimagining of the real Blackbeard whose name may or may not have been Edward Teach or Thatch (we’ll never know), a man who supposedly never harmed a soul himself during his plundering days, but sailed up and down the East Coast of the United States from New York into the Caribbean. For two years in the early 1700’s, he and his band of pirates struck terror in the hearts of those who witnessed his carryings-on. Through theatrics, he created a larger-than-life image of a massive, swashbuckling pirate. It was said that his beard could catch fire at the slightest provocation. And it does! Onstage! I’m not making this up!

Ben Gunderson (Lt. Maynard) and Chris Hoch (Blackbeard) in “Blackbeard” at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

The pirates need to escape the British Navy, and they set out on their captured, refitted French ship, christened the Queen Anne’s Revenge, to travel the high seas to the four corners of the globe to places many have only read about in history books. Oh yes, along the way they raise an undead pirate army from the bottom of the sea—you MUST see how this is done onstage!

Here is how it’s done: “Blackbeard” is set on a huge, wild and wooly pirate ship peopled with a cast of eleven terrific singers, dancers, and actors. You might think it’s 40-50 actors because of the many, many costume and personality changes. One actress has 16 costume changes in this 90-minute show! Heading up the cast as Blackbeard is Chris Hoch (Broadway’s “Shrek” and “War Paint”). Chris is a force of nature! With an amazing voice and stage presence, this is a guy who can sing, dance, and handle two swords while fighting off the enemy, and make it look EASY! When have you ever seen a sword fight in a musical? Well, director Eric Schaeffer and choreographer Matthew Gardiner obviously thought it would be a really good idea! Together, I guess anything is possible!

Bobby Smith (Òdinn) with the cast of “Blackbeard” at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Speaking of making acting look easy, Bobby Smith, another Signature Theatre legend, plays two roles, Karl and Òdinn. Òdinn appears in Valhalla with the Norse Gods. (Of course he does!) When Bobby Smith sings and dances his hilarious Gilbert and Sullivan-like patter song, which includes references to Brunhilde and “The Ring Cycle” operas, it brings down the house! The song that follows, “To be a Pirate”, is luscious and beautifully written with lots of key changes and unusual harmonies. Perfect paired with the patter song! And Nova Payton, another Signature Theatre favorite, is simply divine as the sultry, spitfire Dominique! Her costume with its long, loooong train of plush material is so interestingly textured and beautiful, it threatens to overpower her singing, but that will never happen! She, too, almost stops the show with her powerhouse singing of “Spellbound”. The adorable cabin boy, Roger, played by Rory Boyd, brings the heart and soul to this rollicking saga. Rory’s a gifted actor and singer and becomes (spoiler alert!) a surrogate son to the “fearsome” Blackbeard.

Nova Y. Payton (Dominique) in “Blackbeard” at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Lawrence Redmond, as Samuel/Old Man, brings out another dimension in Blackbeard, as he is beginning to search for his roots and his infamous father, Whitebeard. Lawrence is another of Signature’s stable of multi-talented actors, and there are many! I wish I had space to describe each actor/character’s unique contribution, but those amazing actors include Awa Sal Secka (“Jesus Christ Superstar”), Kevin McAllister (“Grand Hotel”), Ian Anthony Coleman (“Grand Hotel”), Maria Egler (“A Little Night Music”), Ben Gunderson (“Grand Hotel”), Christopher Mueller (“Passion”) with Jessica Bennett (Off-Broadway’s “Honestly Abe”) as a swing and Bob McDonald (“Putting it Together”) as Blackbeard’s understudy.

All the action is backed up by an 8-piece orchestra conducted by the brilliant Jon Kalbfleisch with musical direction by David Holcenberg! Much of the action takes place on the afore-mentioned re-fitted pirate ship, The Queen Anne’s Revenge, a product of scenic designer Paul Tate Depoo III’s prolific imagination! In addition, the costumer, Erik Teague, and wig designer, Anne Nesmith, must have put in many creative overtime hours on their special designs for this production! Blackbeard’s wig seems to take on a life of its own, and his raggedy frock coat swings and rocks with him and looks masterful on his frame. All the costumes and wigs are imaginative and appear to be just right for this production. They apparently all must have massive amounts of Velcro for those quick changes by the cast. Don’t even get me started on the Valhalla antlers and helmets…hilarious! There are also sound and light effects by Ryan Hickey, sound designer, and Chris Lee, lighting design, that initially may terrify, but ultimately will amuse you.

Maria Egler (Morgan), Lawrence Redmond (Samuel), Christopher Mueller (Jake), Ben Gunderson (Garrick) Awa Sal Secka (Shanti), and Kevin McAllister (Caesar) in “Blackbeard” at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

This is a show for the entire family, but a bit of a caution: young children may be frightened by the decapitated heads of a couple of the characters which are brought onstage for all to see. They are obviously fake, but even so…, as well as large puffs of smoke and very loud noises. Finally, I think this production, aside from being riotously funny with witty lyrics and a beautiful, memorable contemporary music score, is very much about being free and the search for the prize–the journey and the adventures that go along with that journey, not the prize itself–and family. One thing I DO know for certain, you and your family will be handsomely entertained by “Blackbeard”!

Performance and Ticket Information: “Blackbeard” runs now through July 14 in Signature’s MAX Theatre. Running time is 90 minutes with no intermission. For tickets and parking information go to SigTheatre.org.

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