Aaarrgghh! Pirate Long John Silver and His 18th Century Swashbuckling Mates Are Back

Culture Watch
tags: theater reviews, Devil and the Deep

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

Avast, ye theater goers, the famed pirate Long John Silver, hopping about on one leg and his colorful parrot firmly on his shoulder, is back, this time in a new musical, Devil and the Deep, based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s immortal pirate saga Treasure Island, set in the 1760s.

The new musical, that opened Thursday at Theater 3 at 311 W. 43rd Street, in New York, is stocked with most of the legendary characters from the book and more than two dozen movies based upon it (the best remains the 1950 Treasure Island, with Robert Newton as Long John Silver), and missing some. Most of the plot is intact, but scenes have been cut here and there to make way for the musical numbers. The basic story of adventure seeking boy Jim Hawkins, Silver and the pirate crew on an island after a long journey on the high seas and Spanish Main, is pretty much the same.

Avast, mates, everybody has taken a cut at Treasure Island with a pirate’s sword and it has been keelhauled from one country to another (the Soviets even produced a few versions of the story). It is a timeless treasure. Now there is Devil and the Deep.

The second act of Devil and the Deep, directed by Lisa Devine, starts with a sensational number, Parrot Talk, sung by a stunning Skyler Volpe, who does the song in the style of 1940s nightclub act, with a full ensemble of dancing pirates around her.

The rest of the second act is highly entertaining as bold young Jim Hawkins and his noble seamen battle the nefarious pirates over buried treasure (of course, marked with an ‘x’ on the treasure map). Benita Gunn, the long lost daughter of Ben Gunn, appears and just about steals the show with her singing, dancing and acting.

The problem with Devil and the Deep is the sluggish first act, that nearly threatens to make the whole cast walk the plank. It starts off slowly with the introduction of Jim and the pirates at the Admiral Benbow Inn and then slows down even more. There is no tension, and no drama. You keep waiting for something to happen, but it does not until the dazzling start of act two. The director needs to raise the tempo of act one.

The play has far too many songs and could be cut by a good fifteen minutes. Except for a few tunes, all of the songs sound alike and you wonder at times, with all this singing, if you are at a swashbuckling opera and not a play.

Just about everybody knows the story and you realize right away that key characters have been cut out of this version. They left Squire Trelawney on the dock when they re-did the story. He and others are desperately needed.

Director Devine gets fine performances from Volpe, Courtney Shaw as Benita Gunn, Ethan Gabriel Riordan as Jim, Bill Newhall as Captain Smollet and others. Eric Coles, as Long John Silver, needs to find some deviousness and a bit of swagger.

The book of the play is by Melissa Bell. Music and lyrics are by Graham Russell and Katie McGhie. It is choreographed by Sarita Lou.

One really delightful aspect of the play is the large, colorful parrot that sits on Silver’s shoulder and flies about the stage, all the time held by actress Volpe. After fifteen minutes or so, you don’t realize she is holding it and see the parrot as an independent character (as in the horses in War Horse). It is a nice trick.

With some revision in the first act, Devil and the Deep would crawl out of Davey Jones’ locker and be a worthy successor to all of the Treasure Island plays and movies that have delighted us for years.

One saving grace is that you do learn much about history in the play, from the history of shipping to island life to law enforcement and pirates in the 18th century. Anyone interested in the way 18th century inns were run profits, too.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by Harvey and Kathleen Guion, Barry Siegel and Suril Shah. Sets: Alisa Simond- Kergan and Jim Kergan, Costumes: Adrienne Carlisle, Lighting: Jessica M. Kasprisin, Parrot design Tanya Khordos and Barry Weil, Choreography: Sarita Lou. Musical Direction: Josh Freilich. The play is directed by Lisa Devine. It runs through June 27.

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