Monday, February 25, 2019

The Scarlet Pimpernel - Fun and Frivolity Amidst the Mayhem

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Given the popularity of The Scarlet Pimpernel, whose premise gave rise to numerous latter-day costumed superheroes, it’s somewhat surprising the property has only made it to The Great White Way twice. First as a straight play in 1900, and then as a musical almost a century later. Manhattan Concert Productions offering a stirring, if somewhat over the top one-night-only concert performance of the Nan Knighton/Frank Wildhorn 1997 Broadway vehicle as part of their "Broadway" series at David Geffen Hall at New York’s Lincoln Center on February 18.

The story takes place in
Paris and England in the aftermath of the French Revolution, during the period commonly known as the “reign of terror”, circa 1792-1794. Where numerous members of the overthrown French aristocracy were condemned to death by the now-empowered masses. Their executions carried out via the unmerciful slice of the guillotine, and often accompanied by the cheers of bloodthirsty crowds. Among those in charge of maintaining order for this new Republic, and thus making sure those condemned have their sentences carried out, are French Agents Robespierre (Drew Gehling) and Chauvelin (Norm Lewis).

Like many people living in England, Lord Percy Blakeney (Tony Yazbeck) looks at what is going on in France with revulsion, but doesn’t consider doing anything to stop it. That is, until he receives word that someone he knew in Paris has been executed, along with his entire family. Determined to no longer simply “sit on his British ass” and enlisting a group of like-minded friends to help him, he forms a secret society dedicated to rescuing imprisoned French nobles and spiriting them to safety. In order to protect their identities, Blakeney and his crew adopt an exaggerated aura of foppish foolery, thus deflecting any suspicion from the authorities - either French or English - that might come their way. The group’s sign of recognition, the symbol of a flower that grows near the Blakeney home - a scarlet pimpernel.

Complicating matters for Percy is the fact he has just married the former French actress, Marguerite St. Just (Laura Osnes), after a whirlwind six-week courtship. He finding out soon after their wedding it that was Marguerite who betrayed his friend in Paris to Chauvelin. Finding himself no longer able to trust the woman he loves, he becomes cold and distant to her. Marguerite meanwhile, who had no idea what Chauvelin was planning to do with the information she gave him, and unable to understand the sudden change in Percy, finds herself becoming more and more disgusted with her husband’s seemingly unconcerned actions about everything. Marguerite’s situation becoming even more dire when Chauvelin, now the French Envoy to England, attempts to blackmail her so she will aid him in discovering the Pimpernel’s identity.

Besides being a rousing adventure of the old school, complete with secret identities and star-crossed lovers, The Scarlet Pimpernel offers a serious lesson about the cost of taking a stand for what you believe in. It is an issue which threatens to consume Percy and Marguerite as they struggle to determine just who they can trust. And where the wrong choice can mean their deaths, as well as the deaths of those they care for. This point also nagging at the thoughts of Chauvelin who, while a passionate member of the new French order, with a great contempt for the old aristocracy, finds himself wondering if the cause he has fought for has gone too far in its attempt to right past wrongs. These matters all coming to a head in a very powerful first act closing number.

The underlying elements of a great story are all present in the MCP offering, Sadly, Gabriel Barrie's directorial efforts often take the work in the wrong direction. Particularly when it comes to the character of Percy, someone who has little enough shading to begin with. Percy may firmly believe he is fighting the good fight, but having such a clear definition of right and wrong, with little or no gray area, doesn’t make him all that interesting. In an attempt to compensate, Barrie plays up much of the humor of Knighton's book. He taking Percy's foppish actions, and those of his friends, to such an extreme it quickly becomes annoying. Something not really necessary, as there are several musical numbers that already nicely address the issue. Such as "They Seek Him Here", a sequence which takes place at the court of the Prince of Wales (Gehling).

This problem of exaggeration is even more evident in the show's finale, when the entire production becomes something akin to a British pantomime. True, parts of it are rather cute – especially when Lewis and Yazbeck compete in a dance-off, but it also takes away from the inherent suspense of the work and feels like a dumbing down of the source material.

The show’s score is quite good and ideally, should have been a joy to hear, thanks to the excellent efforts of the New York City Chamber Orchestra, under the very capable baton of music director Jason Howland. Frank Wildhorn's music especially coming through loud and clear. Unfortunately, there is a constant problem with Dave Horowitz's sound design, with Knighton's lyrics all too often getting lost in the vast venue, making it hard to really appreciate the full impact of the songs. 

The production's use of "an ensemble chorus of aspiring artists from around the world", according to the show program, is a wonderful idea and certainly works when they are portraying angry French citizens hurling "garbage" at those soon to die, or as participants at a masked ball in England. Though at other moments their adding their voices to the cacophony of sound that already exists ends up as something of a mess; with one unable to clearly hear what is being sung. This was especially evident with such numbers as “Madame Guillotine” and “Into the Fire”.

The three leads in the show all acquit themselves well. Despite some of the problems mentioned above with Percy, Yazbeck completely submerges himself in the role and nicely conveys the firmness of the character's resolve. He also convincingly brings forth the feelings of a tortured soul in "When I Look At You", where he displays the depths of the love he feels for Marguerite, but is unable to express aloud.
Osnes is excellent as Marguerite, and handles the French accent quite nicely. She being able to showcase both her love for Percy, and her desperation to keep certain elements of her past from coming to light. She also showing Marguerite to be, when push comes to shove, someone determined enough to take matters into her own hands. The character also having her own “double identity” to juggle. One as a French actress/singer, and one as an accepted member of English society.

Lewis makes a very strong Chauvelin. His powerful bearing and voice showing him to be a perfect fit in the role. His portrayal also offering some hints of a man with an interesting history of his own. One the audience is only offered the briefest of glimpses. Yet it is also one Chauvelin cannot quite forget, even as he continues his obsessive pursuit of what he believes to be the greater good.

The rest of the cast was okay, but came off as somewhat interchangeable in their roles. Notable exceptions being Corey Cott as Marguerite’s younger brother Armand, and Dana Costello as Marie Grosholtz.

Caite Hevner does a nice job with the set. One being treated to the sight of a gigantic French flag draped above the stage when first entering the venue. The effect giving the appearance of a political rally. That is, until one’s eyes focus on the large guillotine that is prominently displayed. Jason Kantrowitz's lighting effect help enhance this duel feeling of celebration and danger. Good work also by fight director Rick Sordelet.

While quite enjoyable, the MCP presentation of The Scarlet Pimpernel didn't always didn't rise to the heights it could have. This thanks to some serious overacting, and the habit of giving away certain plot points before their time, simply to get a quick laugh. Overall however, the pluses of the evening outweighed the minuses.

Featuring: Ashley Blanchet (Ensemble), TyNia Brandon (Ensemble), Dana Costello (Marie Grosholtz), Corey Cott (Armand St. Just), Alysha Deslorieux (Chloe/Ensemble), Kevin Duda (Hal/Coupeau/Ensemble), John Treacy Egan (Ozzy/Ensemble), Drew Gehling (Robespierre/Prince of Wales/Marquis de St. Cyr/Jessup), Kevin Kern (Ben/Mercier/Ensemble), Norm Lewis (Chauvelin), Ashley Loren (Ensemble), Alex Newell (Elton/Ensemble), Laura Osnes (Marguerite St. Just), Eliseo Roman (Dewhurt/Ensemble), Sara Sheperd (Ensemble), Yasmeen Sulieman (Helene/Ensemble), Tony Yazbeck (Sir Percy Blakeney).

The Scarlet Pimpernel

Book and lyrics by Nan Knighton
Music by Frank Wildhorn
Caite Hevner: Set Design
Jason Kantrowitz: Lighting Design
Dave Horowitz: Sound Design
Heather C. Jackson: Costume Design
Chris Zaccardi: Production Stage Manager
Willy Kinch: Assistant Stage Manager
Jennifer Paulson Lee: Associate Director & Choreographer
Lauren Widner: Assistant Director
Sordelet Inc: Rick Sordelet: Fight Director
Jackson Miller: Associate Lighting Designer & Programmer
Telsey + Company: Casting
Juniper Street Productions: Production Manager
Manhattan Concert Productions: Producer & General Manager
Jason Howland: Music Director & Conductor
Directed by Gabriel Barre

Presented by Manhattan Concert Productions (
David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center
Running time: 2 hour 45 minutes, with one intermission
Presented on February 18, 2019

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