The Scarlet Pimpernel

Book & Lyrics by Nan Knighton, Music by Frank Wildhorn

Directed by Sandy Richens Cohrs

Reviewed by Keith Waits

Entire contents copyright © 2011 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

Before The Dark Knight there was Zorro, and before Zorro there was…The Scarlet Pimpernel?  The name of this elusive hero may not have the same resonance for modern audiences as the more immediately recognizable characters who were influenced by him, but the original outlaw hero hiding behind an ineffectual alter ego is right here in the guise of Sir Percy Blakeney.

Although he is placed in the historical context of the early days of the French Revolution by his creator, the Baroness Emmuska Orczy, Percy’s story is pure fiction, a fantasy of an English nobleman rescuing French aristocrats from “Madame Guillotine.” It is a grand adventure story here adapted into a pretty fair musical. Originally produced in New York in 1997, the score is sound enough, with a handful of better-than-average songs and some deliciously campy scenes of Percy and his compatriots, the “League of The Scarlet Pimpernel.”  They are portrayed as not the most masculine bunch in the first place, but as we watch Percy train them in the fine art of foppishness so they will not readily be suspected of being heroic or fearless, the resulting superciliousness is hilarious to behold, culminating in the triumphant number “The Creation of Men.”

Director Sandy Richens Cohrs clearly delights in such scenes, which expose the hollowness of cliché images of masculinity and play well for modern audiences accustomed to a broader spectrum of male iconography. If it makes the remainder of the story seem a little more traditional, closer to so many other costumed adventures, it at least is given a spirited reading by a skilled cast.

Brian Douglas Barker makes a very charismatic Percy, and opening night found him in fine voice. Jennifer Poliskie was every bit his equal as his wife, Marquerite St. Just. Their strained relationship gives the story nice tension and forces her character into the action. Gary Tipton brought his wily veteran’s eye to the villain Chauvelin; and the same is true of Rich William’s Robespierre, who elicits solid laughs with his broad comic French accent.

The remainder of the cast delivers solid support and, if not all strong singers, the group harmonies in the chorus were smartly arranged and effectively delivered. Most importantly, everyone seemed to be having fun onstage, which resulted in a buoyant energy throughout the evening. One of Ms. Cohrs’ strengths as a director/choreographer is in knowing exactly what demands she can place on performers of varying degrees of experience in the skills required for musical theatre. The movement was simple but suitably graceful or slapstick as was required at any given moment. My only quibble on this subject was the climactic duel with swords, which lacked any sense of threat or danger. If this scene could have contained one-half the bravura displayed by the “League of The Scarlet Pimpernel,” it would have helped avoid a slight downturn in the show’s impact in the closing moments.

The quality of the vocals, particularly from Ms. Poliskie and Mr. Barker, is assured, and I was grateful to hear them, sans microphones, in the intimate environs of The MeX. The pre-recorded score was a cut above the usual examples, less tinny and with slightly fuller arrangements, although there were several times the score and the cast seemed to be competing against each other. Some tweaking of the volume would be warranted, I think. 

The original production of The Scarlet Pimpernel met with mixed commercial and critical reception, but the show apparently has something of a cult following. I found it to be funny and entertaining — a musical that doesn’t take it itself too seriously, embraces silliness (always a virtue) and has not been so often produced as to have worn out its welcome. The opening night audience was full, but not quite sold out, and received Pimpernel with enthusiasm.

Featuring: Brian Barker, Jennifer Poliskie, Gary Tipton, Bryce Blair, Kathy Todd Chaney, Aaron Davenport, Eddie Dohn, Katie Hay, Carolyn Holbrook, Amber Hurst, Sydney Jones, Angela Mayfield, Brian Morris, Janet Morris, Jeremy O’Brien, Josh O’Brien, Kim Perry, Richard Ray, Jim Reid, Howard Whitman and Rich Williams.

The Scarlet Pimpernel

November 18, 19, 25 & 26 @ 8 p.m.
November 20 & 27 @ 2 p.m.

The As Yet Unnamed Theatre Company

The MeX Theatre, The Kentucky Center

501 West Main Street

Louisville, KY 40202