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The Scarlet Pimpernel

Shubert Theatre

By Albert Williams

"I have seen the worst play in London," wrote a New York Times theater critic in 1907 of a drama that had been running for two years. "What makes it odd is the fact that the worst play in this case happens to be the most successful."

The play was the first stage adaptation of The Scarlet Pimpernel, Baroness Emmuska Orczy's novel, completed in 1902, about an English aristocrat, Sir Percy Blakeney, who tries to rescue his French counterparts from the guillotine during the French Revolution. (Orczy herself and her husband, Montagu Barstow, adapted the play, which starred Fred Terry of England's famed Terry acting dynasty, after numerous publishers had rejected her manuscript; it was the play's popularity that led to the book's publication in 1905.) The Times reviewer wasn't put off by dopey dialogue or stodgy stagecraft; indeed, he singled out the opening scene for its "melodramatic but atmospheric" introduction of the Pimpernel, a master of disguise posing as an "old hag" driving a horse cart in which were concealed a countess and her daughter, saved from execution. What bugged the Times observer was that such scenes of derring-do were so rare; in most of the play, he complained, the hero was "content to play the fool," appearing as a good-natured imbecile while others unknowingly lauded his alter ego's offstage bravery.

Of course the key to Pimpernel's popularity was the audience's fascination with the protagonist's double identity. Spending much of his time passing as a dandy, Orczy's creation was perhaps the first modern superhero. What excites us about Zorro is that he's also the elegant coward Don Diego; the virtually invulnerable Superman would be a bore if he weren't also mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent; and Batman's enigmatic public persona--a rich, reclusive bachelor who lives with a teenage boy--is a large part of his appeal.

Such heroes have intrigued audiences over the past century, I think, because they invite us to identify with them. We can relate to Clark Kent schlepping to his day job and then fantasize that we too might pop into a phone booth, change into our tights, and soar skyward. Likewise, viewers may recognize a bit of themselves in Sir Percy--a silly ass more concerned with social conventions and what to wear than with international politics--even as they laugh at him. Others may fantasize that beneath their mates' vain, insensitive exterior beats a heroic heart.

The current musical version of The Scarlet Pimpernel trades on many of the same elements that made Orczy's original adaptation popular. And while this creation of composer Frank Wildhorn, librettist Nan Knighton, and director-choreographer Robert Longbottom won't ever challenge the success of The Phantom of the Opera or Les Miserables--or of the original Pimpernel--the current touring edition, reportedly significantly downsized from the now closed Broadway incarnation, demonstrated plenty of audience appeal at its Chicago opening.

Even more than Orczy's original, this Pimpernel is played as romantic comedy rather than thrilling adventure tale. There's virtually no spectacle--no big crowds or mass executions--in part to create what director Longbottom calls "a more tourable production" (though the top ticket price is about the same as that recently charged for the much more elaborate Miss Saigon). And there's very little swashbuckling here--only one rather unimpressive climactic duel between Percy and his nemesis, Chauvelin, on the stage of the shuttered Comedie-Francaise, where this agent of Robespierre has improbably installed a portable guillotine. (Percy's French actress-wife Marguerite joins in the duel, which makes the scene more politically correct but not more exciting.)

In this ludicrous ending as well as in other ways, Knighton and Longbottom have altered Orczy's time-tested tale to focus on the romantic triangle at the expense of action--and credibility. The relationship between Percy, Marguerite, and her sometime suitor Chauvelin--an architect of the revolutionary regime's final solution to the aristocrat question--plays as trite soap opera. This script changes Percy's essential motivation: instead of being driven by his anger at revolutionary excesses (and fear that the anti-aristo bloodbath might spread to England), he's bent on avenging his wounded pride because he thinks Marguerite is in league--and perhaps in love--with Chauvelin, not realizing she's forced to aid the bloodthirsty bastard because he's holding her brother prisoner. Like Mel Gibson's character in The Patriot, this Percy embarks on his vengeful vendetta for purely personal reasons; the creators seem to think that entertainment consumers no longer care about heroes devoted to causes or about the issues underlying those causes.

Unfortunately they're probably right; surveys indicate widespread ignorance of history among Americans, and even the puff piece on Pimpernel that appears in the program refers to "the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror that preceded it." Yet the theme of marital mistrust, here as in Orczy's plot, is resonant, as Percy and Marguerite ask themselves, is the person I'm married to the same person I fell in love with?

But what really sells this Pimpernel is its comedy--lowbrow burlesque of the most obvious sort. Percy doesn't seem merely a fop; he comes off as a screaming queen, shrieking with girlish laughter and almost flirting with the chilly, macho Chauvelin. Orczy's original hero was a prissily elegant clotheshorse, but here he acts like a demented dress designer in search of ever more outrageous fashions. Audiences have always enjoyed watching men act like women--think of "Honey Bun" in South Pacific or Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby singing "Sisters" in White Christmas. Acting nellie is just as easy a way to get laughs as long as the audience believes the character (if not the actor) is really butch. Here the joke is expanded to include Percy's pals: enlisting them as counterrevolutionaries in his secret league, he also persuades them to emulate his sissified facade. This leads to perhaps the show's most crowd-pleasing number, "The Creation of Man," in which Percy's cohorts wave their handkerchiefs and fluff their frills before launching into a synchronized step that stops just short of a Rockettes kick line. (Longbottom also stages Radio City Music Hall's Christmas pageant.) Of course, this gag works only because we believe the men are heterosexual; indeed, when one gentle young man seems to like foppish behavior a little too well, he becomes the butt of Percy's humor and the object of the audience's laughter--and is not heard from much again. On the other hand, the script does challenge traditional notions of masculinity, suggesting that fashionable foppery is contagious: the Prince of Wales first looks down his nose at Percy's wildly garbed crew, then starts dressing like them.

Dubbed by insiders "The Scarlet Pimpernel 4.0"--the fourth stage version of a show that's undergone plenty of revisions since it opened on Broadway in 1997--the production now at the Shubert stoops shamelessly for laughs. Longbottom is generally credited with emphasizing the comedy. If he'd dropped the schlocky score--whose bathetic ballads sound like rejects from a mid-70s Streisand album--he might have delivered a more diverting evening. Unfortunately, the lively if obvious and sometimes coarse humor ("Englishmen are known for their splendid balls," says one character as Percy announces a formal dance) is too often interrupted by yet another simpleminded Wildhorn song that sounds just like every other song.

Longbottom has disguised the work's lack of substance with impressive stagecraft. The first-rate design team emphasizes the theme of role-playing by establishing a deliberately artificial and theatrical tone, often evoking the 18th century. Andrew Jackness's scenery includes some lovely painted landscapes that recall Watteau and Fragonard; Natasha Katz's lighting features electric candles for footlights; Jane Greenwood's costumes range from exquisite gowns for the women to truly outlandish getups for Percy and his pals, who explain their frequent trips to France as excursions in search of haute couture; and Paul Huntley's elaborate wigs complement the clothing.

The performers are quite capable--at least when they're not distorting their voices to make the songs sound more emotionally expressive than they are. Amy Bodnar is a fetching Marguerite despite her noticeably wobbly vibrato, William Paul Michals a charismatically villainous Chauvelin (the role is basically a cartoon version of Les Miz's driven Javert, which Michals has also played), and David Cromwell does droll double duty as the Prince of Wales and Robespierre, played here as a violence-averse bureaucrat. But the evening belongs mostly to Robert Patteri as Percy--and he pulls off the caricature he's asked to play with great panache. With his Dudley Do-Right profile and whiplash timing, he's a top-notch farceur; he also has a flair for vaudevillian shtick--including a guttural purr-growl like Bert Lahr's in The Wizard of Oz and like the one Bob Hope used to indicate comic lechery. Patteri gives the essentially heavy-handed humor a light touch and an antic energy that suggests Danny Kaye in overdrive, and it works like a charm. His only shortcoming is a strained high range that at one point turns the word "go" into "goo."

Rather like the Elton John-Tim Rice-Robert Falls Aida--though The Scarlet Pimpernel comes nowhere near that level of junkiness--this show veers crazily between broad comedy and hyperemotional bathos. Perhaps this reflects a sensibility shaped by TV, where silly sitcoms, gritty dramas, tell-all talk shows, and slick commercials all blend into a tapestry of intellectual and emotional incoherence. Viewers looking for substance or consistency--or even the level of wit demonstrated by such lightweight shows from musical theater's heyday as Kiss Me, Kate, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Bye Bye Birdie, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and Grease--will be disappointed. So will anyone seeking swashbuckling excitement or suspense mixed with humor. But there's no question that The Scarlet Pimpernel has its audience, just as it always has.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joan Marcus.

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