The Scarlet Pimpernel
June 27 at TPAC’s Jackson Hall
Handsome heroes and beauteous belles may be a dime a dozen onstage, but a good villain is always hard to find. Once found, however, he is not easily forgotten. The Scarlet Pimpernel, a Frank Wildhorn musical presented at TPAC’s Jackson Hall last weekend, boasts such a memorable character: Add a dash of Iago here, a sprinkle of Jekyll and Hyde there, toss in some essence of King Kong to tasteand there you have it, the recipe for Monsieur Chauvelin himself.
William Paul Michals plays Chauvelin, an ambitious follower of Robespierre during the darkest days of the French Revolution, who blackmails, beats, beheads, and bullies all who block his way in his rise to power. Though an admittedly unpleasant character, Chauvelin accomplishes his agenda with great style and panache.
Through his actions as much as his song, Michals expresses a forceful, repressed anger with a big, wonderfully trained baritone that makes his rage all the more effective by contrast. Michals’ black hair falls over his scowl while he strides confidently about the stage and barks orders to cowering subordinates. When he sings of “blood that runs in the streets,” you are inclined to agree that “only the fittest will survive”meaning, of course, him. But like Richard III, Michals’ role demands that he must also be seductive enough to tempt the play’s heroine. With his simmering in-your-face sexuality, piercing blue eyes, and dark good looks, Michals is one terrific villain.
Whereas most other touring companies in TPAC’s Broadway series boast one big-name actor who dominates the whole show, two of the other leads in Scarlet Pimpernel give stand-out performances. The talented and beautiful Amy Bodnar plays Marguerite, the French actress who marries the Englishman Percywho shuns her when he begins to suspect she is a French spy. Called upon to express complex nuances above and beyond the abilities of the usual Broadway ingenue, Bodnar projects the full range of emotions, from pain to puzzlement, from sexual longing to spunky indignation. Her red curly wig may owe something to Annie, but she is no simple-minded heroine, nor a passive victim of circumstances. At one point, she returns to France to rescue her brother. Chauvelin captures her and mocks her, “Surely you have forgotten how to speak your native tongue.” Marguerite effectively silences him when she bursts into a show-stopping rendition of an Edith Piaf ballad, sung in French.
Robert Patteri proved a crowd favorite in the role of Percy, the English lord who pretends to be an effete fop while actually serving as a secret agent. With great gusto, Patteri bounces back and forth between a stylish Beau Brummel type, all too concerned with the cut of his lace jabot, and a dashing Errol Flynn, who twirls a dueling foil rather than a gold-headed cane. Blessed with impeccable comic timing, he cops the funniest lines in the play.
The Scarlet Pimpernel proved a delightful package, wrapped in high style. Jane Greenwood’s costume designs are lavish but not overly ornate. She uses subtle gradations of color to convey opulence except in the ballroom scene where both the Scarlet Pimpernel and his wife Marguerite appear in brilliant scarlet, set against the pale silvers and shimmering golds of the guests’ outfits. The cast steps out of dark doorways framed by gold pillars. The total effect is stunning.
Unlike many sumptuous Broadway productions that have little substance behind them, The Scarlet Pimpernel proves the exception. Frank Wildhorn’s songs are constructed with passion, not sentiment. They often build to a stirring climax, then die to a whispered resolution that sticks in the memory. Nan Knighton’s book and lyrics are witty and intelligent, though perhaps too much so. It is likely that some of the arcane references in the show, whether dialogue or dance, passed over the heads of the audience. But this rarely mars the humorous tone of the production.
All told, The Scarlet Pimpernel is pure escapist fantasy. The villain gets his just desserts in the end. The heroine is outrageously beautiful and brainy. The hero is heroically engaged in rescuing the world from its Reign of Terror. It is a pity that we live in similar times, what with the bloody militias of Bosnia, Hutu/Tutsi tribal warfare, Indonesian mobs run amok, and crazies who mow down children in synagogues. The villain in The Scarlet Pimpernel looks all too recognizable, but its hero isn’t big enough for our times. Where are Superman and Wonder Woman when you really need them?
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