SANDY — Average citizen by day, dashing hero by night. Some people credit the Scarlet Pimpernel as the original super hero—and quite a well-dressed one, like if Bruce Wayne ever decided to ditch the black cape for a Prada suit.
The hero in question is Percy Blakeney, an English aristocrat with sympathy for those losing their heads in the French Revolution. The familiar story (in the script by Nan Knighton, based on the novel by Baroness Orczy) traces Blakeney’s escapades in France secretly stealing aristocrats out of the country during the French Revolution. This Scarlet Pimpernel is the 1997 Broadway musical. Hale’s production starts with the most impressive part of the show: an elaborate two-story carousel by set designer Kacey Udy where Marguerite and her fellow actors sing the opening number, “Storybook.” The gaudy set highlighted the opulence of the pre-Revolution aristocracy, and (just like the wealth of Louis XIV), it was overwhelming to witness. While my companion for the evening was thrilled by Frank Wildhorn‘s music and Knighton’s lyrics, I found the score pretty forgettable, with the exception of one: but what a barnburner it is! If you don’t leave the theater singing “Into the Fire,” you might have been asleep.
Daniel Beck portrays the title hero, and his interpretation is far less over-the-top silly and more grounded than Anthony Andrews’s iconic portrayal in the 1982 film (to say nothing of Franny from Studio C). I’m glad that Beck decided to make Percy his own instead of just aping the film. While he may have sacrificed a few laughs in the process (there are plenty anyway), it did lead to a more believable character.
Blakeney’s love interest is Marguerite, played by Erin Royall Carlson. She holds secrets of her own, and is a possible spy for the French, namely Chauvelin (played by Dallyn Vail Bayles), the spitting image of Severus Snape with a black outfit and shoulder length hair. Chauvelin is a one-dimensional baddie bent on seducing Marguerite and taking the Pimpernel out. Is he successful? Of course not! This is not that kind of show. The audience knows how this play will end from the beginning.
All three leads commanded strong singing voices and portrayed their character with aplomb. Beck’s Percy delivered plenty of punchlines to keep the audience entertained. (The man sure likes his lace.) And I particularly enjoyed Jeffrey Whitlock in twin minor roles as the Prince of Wales and Robbespierre, and Whitlock’s comedic timing and delivery were perfect for generating laughs. I would’ve liked to have seen more of him and Nathan Kremin, the most natural and believable actor onstage as Marguerite’s little brother Armand.
This stage production (directed by John J. Sweeney) differs a fair amount from the beloved 1982 film. For one, there doesn’t seem to be nearly as much action. There are only a couple rescues, and most of the musical takes place in the British Isles. I found myself yearning to return to France where the excitement was. A tremendous amount of time is also spent on the Percy-Marguerite-Chauvelin love triangle, which usually involves characters standing still and singing about their feelings.
Also in the mix is Percy’s band of merry men: 10 English aristocrats that he recruits to his cause. Their cover is to go into France as clueless dandies looking for a good time. Apparently even when the streets were running red with blood, there was still plenty of fine clothing to buy. While it’s funny to see them play dress-up and sing silly songs in England, it seems like they could save some heads if they’d cut down the antics a bit and just head to France. And aren’t overly rich aristocrats the people revolutionaries are looking for in the first place?
The production is technically sound, as is standard at the Hale. The mechanized, modular stage continues to astound as one of the state’s theatrical treasures. Although, all I can think during the performance is that it’s only a matter of time until a cast member falls right down one of those enormous holes or gets paralyzed by a moving set piece. The thing I can’t figure out is why the Hale chose to build such an opulent theater complete with 17-foot tall bronze jester and video billboards that wink at you like something out of Harry Potter, yet completely forgo live music. Is there no space for an orchestra in the bowels of the stage’s cavernous belly? Or would they also be flattened by a descending piece of carousel?
In the pantheon of productions at the new Hale, this show is on par with the recent production of The Music Man. It is neither a breathtaking success like Tuck Everlasting or Aida, nor a complete miss like Cash on Delivery. No, this is a very well produced non-Equity production of a familiar show with quality acting, singing and stage elements. In other words, right on par with what the Hale Centre Theatre is known for. Maybe it was just my seat in the back row, but I do find it hard to recommend at $40-44 for an adult ticket. Then again, practically the entire audience gave it a standing ovation, so what do I know?