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It is a curious thing, and sad: There are people who will tell you that the Frank Wildhorn musicalization of The Scarlet Pimpernel is a conscious exercise in wholesome cornball, an affably hammy swatch of swashbuckle that, like the Ziegfeld Follies of years past and the prime-time newsmagazines of the present day, desires merely to entertain its careworn audience rather than troubling to engage it.
These people are generous.
Perhaps they’re feeling expansive because they have paid $69 each to sit in their orchestra seats to watch an oft-told tale and wonder if it always seemed so utterly unlikely. One can understand why someone who suspects he’s been thoroughly fleeced might feel inclined to take psychological refuge in a round or two of rationalization.
Perhaps, instead, they have come to think it only right, in the age of Britney Spears and Touched by an Angel and This Week with Sam and Cokie, that a popular entertainment will necessarily traffic in witless double-entendre, shallow emotionalism, and bald melodrama. Does Stockholm syndrome apply when one’s being held hostage by a prevailing style?
Or perhaps these generous people, in their charmingly good-natured way, are simply less prepared than some to be judgmental about what constitutes a weakness in a nominally professional staging of a musical comedy. Such, for instance, may have been the case with the gentleman who brayed happily from the precincts of Row O throughout last Sunday night’s performance, blithe in his disregard for whether broad comedy or broad tragedy was being attempted from the stage at any given moment.
One might resolve to emulate this sort of uncritical bonhomie, that the world might be a sunnier, less cynical kind of place. Words can hurt, after all, and “hackwork” is such a harsh sort of noun. Alas, honesty compels one to point out that The Scarlet Pimpernel is, in fact, hackwork, and an uncommonly disjointed bit of it, too. Phrases like “cheaply produced” spring to mind, as do “broadly directed,” “indifferently performed,” and “crashingly banal reduction of a reasonably engaging novel.” It’s enough to make one long for the many-layered sophistication of Les Miz.
Written (or something like that) by Nan Knighton from the novel by Baroness Orczy, and rewritten from the bottom up at least twice since its debut, Pimpernel is one of the most notorious money-losers in recent Broadway history—which probably explains the discount feel of the touring production now in residence at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Oh, Jane Greenwood’s flashy costumes seem swank enough—they’re presumably leftovers from the first Broadway version, before the show got downsized and revamped—but the inventive use of textiles can carry a show only so far. In its effort to trim running costs, the Pimpernel tour enlists fabrics to evoke not just 18th-century fashion but 18th-century Paris and the 18th-century English countryside as well, and the show’s overreliance on painted cloth drops (the sets are by Andrew Jackness) has more than a little to do with its bargain-basement look.
Credit those repeated rounds of revisions for the ungainly lurches from overheated histrionics to music-hall yuk-baiting, and blame the thinness of Kim Scharnberg’s orchestrations for some of the show’s community-theater sound—though part of the blame can be laid at the feet of lead Robert Patteri, who sings the part of the dashing Sir Percy Blakeney in a throttled baritenor that one suspects is meant to sound heroic. Certainly he looks the part, with his strong chin and his sturdy frame, and possibly there is a show-must-go-on sort of heroism in his insisting on singing when his voice isn’t up to the job, but surely it’s not the sort of self-sacrifice one wants to encourage.
Amy Bodnar, as Blakeney’s intrigue-prone actress wife, Marguerite, sings quite nicely, by contrast, but she insists on approaching the character’s outsized emotional dilemmas seriously; if Knighton had taken the novel seriously, that wouldn’t be such a problem, but, as things stand, Marguerite is a cartoon diva, and the only characteristic required to play her is a flair for temperament. Hampered on the one hand by Knighton’s campy dialogue and on the other by Wildhorn’s sticky-sweet power ballads, Bodnar struggles gamely to create pathos; knowing she’s doomed to lose the fight doesn’t make the watching any less exhausting.
As the villain Chauvelin, William Paul Michals is likewise a classy vocal act, and he gives the kind of solid but raucous performance that might lead the charitable to think that Pimpernel really is just out to romp affectionately through a catalog of romantic conventions. It’s romping, to be sure, but in about six different directions at once—and only the most forgiving of patrons will be willing to sit still for it. CP