Christopher Columbus knew there were unknown lands out there when he set sail in 1492. He just didn't know what those lands were. Similarly, playwright Liz Duffy Adams has a good sense that there's another great musical to be made on the theme of pirates (hat tip to Gilbert & Sullivan). She is just in the process of discovering it.
"Buccaneers," Adams' big, rollicking new show, premiered over the weekend at Children's Theatre in Minneapolis under capable director Peter Brosius. A brisk two-hour show set in the Victorian era, the musical is composed by Ellen Maddow, whose sea shanties give this oceangoing adventure story a rather rustic feel. The action takes place on a giant, stage-filling ship's deck designed by Joel Sass.
There, youngsters who have been dragooned into piracy toil under the scornful eye of merciless monarch Johnny Johné (gloriously played by Bradley Greenwald). He may be murderous, but he is a man of honor who would not "break an oath for all the jam in Jamaica." Johné has met his match in Enid Arabella (Megan Fischer), an imaginative and clever girl he kidnapped after she ran away from home.
From Enid's imaginative, Shakespearean-style monologue at the opening through the happy ending, "Buccaneers" is definitely see-worthy. The show has engaging themes and a spunky heroine. Enid is an adaptive, resourceful survivor who finds her power as she leads a mutiny against a venal figure.
Brosius has drawn out excellent performances from many in the cast, especially Fischer and Greenwald. She is fierce and cunning as Enid, showing us how the character works her will with ideas and language rather than trying to match the physical strength of the larger man. And Fischer has a gorgeous voice.
Greenwald gives Johné not just venality but also magnetism and a sense of morals.
When sailing right, "Buccaneers" can hook deeply into the audience's imagination. In the middle of the first act at Friday's opening, for example, Johné offers Enid Arabella a deal to spare her life. The pirate king brings Tom, a loyal young man, forward.
"Slit his throat for me, and ye may live," he says. Immediately, a childish voice screamed out advice from the audience: "No!"
Still, "Buccaneers" is a musical comedy that could use a bit more and varied music and, in the first act at least, a bit more comedy. The few musical numbers, performed by a Victor Zupanc-led quartet, seem spread out to cover the show. Perhaps we've been spoiled by the likes of "Les Misérables," which one of the musical numbers suggested, and "Fiddler on the Roof," which Joe Chvala's choreography recalled. Or maybe we just want "Buccaneers" to have a memorable journey.
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390 Twitter: @rohanpreston