On a flight to Ireland last year, Stephanie J. Block checked out what her traveling companion was wearing and smiled.
Block, cast as the wild, sword-wielding 16-century Irish heroine of Broadway's "The Pirate Queen," was flying to rehearsals with co-star Linda Balgord, who plays the imperious Queen Elizabeth I.
"She was dolled up - and this is just innately Linda - gorgeous fabrics, matching purses and bags, flawless make up," recalls Block. "And I had on a knit hat, no makeup and a sweat suit. I thought, 'Man have we been appropriately cast."'
The show's creators seem to agree and they're a heavy duty group that includes the producers of "Riverdance" and the Tony Award-winning authors Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg of "Les Miserables" and "Miss Saigon" fame.
"Apart from being both very fine actors and singers, they are extraordinary, capable, strong, independent women personally," says Moya Doherty, who along with her husband, John McColgan, were behind "Riverdance" and commissioned the latest piece.
"Linda does have the organized refinement that is required of a queen, and Stephanie has the wild cheekiness and rebelliousness that is definitely required of one who is a self-crowned queen."
The musical traces the life of Grace O'Malley (1530-1603), who smashed traditional gender barriers to become a chieftain, a sea captain and an Irish heroine. Her unusual career parallels that of England's queen, who braved endless all-male court intrigue to lead her expansionist empire into Ireland. Born three years after O'Malley, she also died in 1603.
At one point - the highlight of the show, and an episode based on historical fact - the two enemy queens sit down to negotiate terms for their two peoples.
"There's a lot to be said about these two strong, powerful forces working for the good of humanity," Block says during an interview with Balgord at the Hilton Theatre. "How timely is that?"
The musical required some tricky casting. Whoever played O'Malley had to be both handy with a scabbard and tender with a love song. The actress playing Elizabeth, meanwhile, had to project an inner life from within a 45-pound, jewel-encrusted costume.
Enter Block and Balgord - two veteran actresses with Broadway experience, thirsty for the chance to create starring roles in a new multimillion-dollar show.
"That's the dream," says Balgord.
"Man, as an actor, that's what you work for," Block agrees.
Block, 34, had played Elphaba in the national tour of "Wicked" and played Liza Minnelli opposite Hugh Jackman in "The Boy From Oz." Her other regional credits include roles in "Funny Girl," "Crazy for You" and "James Joyce's The Dead."
"I love her because she's physically a strong woman," says Doherty. "You could imagine her marching the bogs in the west of Ireland. There's nothing frail or fragile about Stephanie."
Block was smitten when she first looked at an initial draft. "I read it and something inside of me went, 'Oh, I can play this!' There literally was a physical shift in my body," she says. "And I thought, 'Wow. I can just be who I am and I think I can fit the glove of this woman."'
Balgord, who is in her 40s, starred in national tours of "Sunset Boulevard" as Norma Desmond and "Aspects of Love" as Rose Vibert. She was Grizabella in the final Broadway company of "Cats," singing the show-stopping "Memory."
At her "Pirate Queen" audition, Balgord got into character by wearing a fiery red outfit and whitening her face. "She just arched those eyebrows and opened that mouth and you just knew that you were in the presence of greatness," says Doherty.
Balgord has a slightly different recollection. Meeting Boublil and Schonberg, she initially thought, "What am I doing here? I feel like a total spaz inside. I'm like, 'You have no business being in the room with these people.' And then somehow you just get your stuff together and do your audition."
Now that they've gotten their plumb Broadway jobs, both Block and Balgord are happy to give up their endless touring and settle into their New York homes.
"Being at home and having that sort of grounded sense of your home, your drug store, your doctors, your flower shop - makes a world of difference," says Block, who lives in an apartment on the Upper West Side. "It's an express train to work - one stop. Woo-hoo!"
Beside Block and Balgord, the 42-person cast features Hadley Fraser, Marcus Chait and William Youmans. The show is directed by Frank Galati ("The Grapes of Wrath," "Ragtime") with musical staging by Graciela Daniele.
Much of "The Pirate Queen" has been reworked since it made its debut in October in Chicago, where it was mostly hung from the yardarm by critics. The Chicago Tribune called it "ill-ruddered" and "far from shipshape," while the Chicago Sun-Times said it had "far too much of 'Les Miserables' and not nearly enough of 'Riverdance."'
Balgord and Block say the creators took much of the criticism to heart, trimming the story, cutting a song and adding another, teasing out the main characters and changing about half the lyrics.
"Most of the reviews - although mixed - were, 'We're behind you 100 percent. You have something great here - now go and fix it.' It wasn't like, 'Oh, stop working,"' says Block.
Balgord and Block faced different challenges getting into their respective characters. To understand Elizabeth, Balgord read six biographies and watched as many movies as possible. Block had an easier time, since her character is less well documented.
"I'm very lucky that Grace O'Malley isn't on the cover of most tabloid magazines these days and I can stay true to who I believe she was and what she did," Block says.
Though Balgord and Block had never met before this production, the jeans-and-tennis-shoes gal and her elegant, painted lips colleague get along famously. In a twist, though, they rarely cross paths: When one is on stage, the other is off - that is until they finally perform together in the second act.
"We do have that sort of containment once the curtain goes up. She and I don't run into each other until we see each other on stage," says Block. "But before? Yeah, I pop my head in her dressing room, and Ireland and England meet."
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