Even adventure stories need souls, and that’s the missing treasure in the action-packed new musical “Blackbeard” at Signature Theatre. Story-wise, this vessel is a speedboat, magically navigating the globe on a mystical quest celebrating mystical quests, powered by a brash musical score and lots of sword fights on deck.
The 100-minute, no-intermission production is shipshape, acted with verve and designed with the kind of elaborate, defiant pirate chic (with pyrotechnics) that has always caught the eyes of rock stars. But you can’t quite figure out why this “Pirates of the Caribbean”-style show is worth doing.
“Who is Blackbeard?” Chris Hoch sings as the title character, and it’s a fair question. In this fable from librettist-lyricist John Dempsey and composer Dana P. Rowe, whose long history at Signature includes the musicals “The Fix” (an ultra dark political fable) and “The Witches of Eastwick,” the golden age of pirates is closing, and Blackbeard hasn’t left much of a mark. “Nobody knows my name,” he sings, echoing Bill Sykes in “Oliver!”
Echoes, in fact, are everywhere in this hurried musical with a score that seems fair to characterize as burly, with its robust choral “heigh-hos.” Hoch enters sounding a touch like Geoffrey Rush in the “Pirates” movies. A sea monster named Dominique reminds you of “The Little Mermaid’s” Ursula and the extravagant creatures of “SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical” as she sings bitterly about being “Spellbound” — trapped and encrusted as part of a coral reef due to a past misadventure that Blackbeard has to undo. (It’s that kind of plot.) Nova Y. Payton sings the tango tune with platinum-edged relish, but it still seems like material washed up from somewhere else.
There is even a recurring mysterious man, which, at least for “Into the Woods” buffs, tips a twist in the story a little too early.
Director Eric Schaeffer is reunited with his “Titanic” set designer Paul Tate dePoo III, though the wooden ship deck that splits Signature’s Max theater diagonally in “Blackbeard” doesn’t begin to approach the wonders evoked by their imaginative realization of the sinking ship epic. With its perpetual swashbuckling amplified by bursts of stage fog from the decks and Sensurround thunder rumbling your seats, this is engineered for thrills that are more efficient — the very busy, always zesty cast numbers a mere 10 — than exciting.
To be fair, it’s also geared for laughs. Hoch emerges as a wry, likable Blackbeard, though he’s often the straight man for the florid activity around him. Valhalla is the first stop for the jewels Blackbeard has to acquire, and Dempsey and Rowe have fun toying with Wagner’s “Ring” cycle in a long, inebriated number that even includes a vaudeville soft shoe. Bobby Smith sings and acts with panache as the god Odinn, but what really catches your eye are the warrior robes and antlered helmets of Erik Teague’s costumes. This kind of spectacle turns out to be more durable than the number’s comedy.
The story’s pivotal points seldom have a chance to sink in, especially when Blackbeard encounters the outsize figures who have the jewels he needs. An exception is Caesar, the West African character played by Kevin McAllister, a man who fled his country and eluded the slave trade to join Blackbeard’s free spirits. Caesar’s “To Be a Pirate” is an alluring anthem eventually sung by all Blackbeard’s loyalists, an inspiring tune with a rousing snare drum line — and also with the humor to rhyme “pirate” with “acquire it” (meaning treasure).
The songs drive the action, all right, and “Into Legend We Sail” is another tune that gets a jolly, muscular sound from its chorus. But the music, played by an eight-person ensemble anchored by keyboards, guitar and drums and getting nautical accents from a trombone and reeds, begins to sound like wave after heavy wave crashing amidships. Blackbeard doesn’t have a good finishing song yet; the generically titled “I Took the Journey” is enough to let you know that the specifics of this premiere could still be fleshed out with more depth and originality.
Blackbeard, book and lyrics by John Dempsey, music by Dana P. Rowe. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Musical director, David Holcenberg; choreography, Matthew Gardiner; lights, Chris Lee; sound design, Ryan Hickey. With Rory Boyd, Lawrence Redmond, Maria Egler, Ben Gunderson, Christopher Mueller and Awa Sal Secka. About 100 minutes. Through July 14 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. $40-$98, subject to change. 703-820-9771 or sigtheatre.org.