Before comic book artist Bob Kane drew a mask on billionaire Bruce Wayne and created his alter ego, Batman, there was The Shadow. Before The Shadow, there was Zorro. But fourteen years before Zorro, there was what is generally considered to be the first of the superheroes, a man who donned a disguise in order to hide his true identity so that he and his followers could right all wrongs and mount their own crusade against the wicked, author Baroness Emma Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel.
First published in 1905, The Pimpernel had no superpowers. He was a wealthy English socialite called Sir Percy Blakeney, a chivalrous man who took it upon himself to pick up a sword, cross the English Channel to France, and rescue royalty from the guillotine during the Reign of Terror, a name that history has given to that horrific period during the French Revolution just after the First French Republic was formed and its leaders became a little too guillotine crazy. Both D.C. and Marvel Comics have a lot to thank the Hungarian born but English raised Baroness for.
As a Broadway musical that first opened in ‘97, The Scarlet Pimpernel has had a somewhat checkered past, with closings, then new openings with changes, then closings again. The version that tends to be performed in regional theatres across the country today is the one that toured nationally in 2000, referred to as The Scarlet Pimpernel 4.0, and that’s what you’ll see with some modifications and re-shaping of its own presented at Hale Centre Theatre in Gilbert, performing now until October 6.
The musical streamlines events from the Baroness’ novel and adds some extra character flavoring here and there, but generally, the plot and Sir Percy’s motivations remain the same. Having married the stylish and beautiful actress of Paris, Marguerite (Rochelle Barton), the English baronet and somewhat foppish playboy, Sir Percy (Austin Delp) soon becomes suspicious of his wife’s loyalty.
When informed that Marguerite may have betrayed a friend of Sir Percy’s across the channel, one that leads to an execution, the man has trouble accepting the idea that his new wife might be a traitor. “I know her as I know my own self!” he declares, but those seeds of doubt are already planted.
The more he considers the notion of betrayal, the more it appears it could be true. Marguerite’s possible guilt and the need to do something to help others across the channel inspires the man into action. With his band of merry socialite friends (20 in the book, 11 on Broadway, 8 at Hale) Sir Percy creates his disguise. To everyone in England’s high society, including his wife, he remains the shallow, wealthy dandy, Sir Percy Blakeney. But to those he rescues and to his wily French adversaries, including the bloodthirsty Citizen Chauvelin (Bryan Stewart) who wants him found and executed at all costs, he’s the formidable swordsman and master of disguise, The Scarlet Pimpernel. “If we don’t do this,” Sir Percy tells his avenging partners, “Who will?”
What strikes you right from the show’s opening is not so much the score, but how it’s sung. With lyrics from Nan Knighton and music by Frank Wildhorn, with the exception of the show’s signature tune, the rousing Into the Fire, the majority of songs feel somewhat similar on first hearing, particularly the ballads. Possessing a contemporary sound, they’re the kind that would not seem altogether out of place if played on a soft adult FM friendly radio format, covered in the way that Barbra Streisand did with Goya’s If I Loved You. They work within the frame of the show but are gone once the production concludes. But the voices in director Cambrian James’ production are another thing.
When Rochelle Barton’s Marguerite makes her entrance down the aisle with the opening number, Storybook, the beauty of her trained voice, along with the clarity of sound, is such a delight, you may feel a concern that the rest of the cast couldn’t possibly maintain this standard of musical performance. But you’d be wrong. The voices throughout, without exception, soar, elevating the most ordinary of melodies to something quite special. And when the song is an ensemble piece, as with Madame Guillotine, The Riddle, and the show’s most memorable number, Into the Fire, often culminating with that Les Miserables styled fist-in-the-air stance, the mediocre music actually sounds inspiring.
It’s a long show – its first half alone runs 90 minutes – and despite the trims and several of the characters cut from the novel, there’s a lot of plot to wade through. But the show is held aloft by three strong, well cast leads, Rochelle Barton’s Marguerite, Austin Delp’s Sir Percy, and Bryan Stewart’s villainous Chauvelin, an actor whose gentle performance as the likable Bob Cratchit in Hale’s production of A Christmas Carol comes as a complete contrast to the overzealous and thunderous agent of the French republican revolutionaries. In truth, as the man in black with an unbreakable fanaticism, there’s more than just a passing resemblance to Victor Hugo’s Javert, but considering the phenomenal success of that particular musical revolving around the French Revolution, as portrayed here, it’s more than probable that any theatrical resemblance between the two characters is entirely intentional.
As with all Hale Centre’s theatre-in-the-round productions, for obvious reasons, scenery is not required. Scene settings are established by costumes and props. The Dani Everts eighteenth-century costume designs are nothing short of lavish as the show jumps from the talk of London’s socialite society to the streets of Paris. As for the props, McKenna Carpenter and Monica Christiansen make creative use of certain sets and props as seen in previous productions, here redeveloped for maximum effect for The Scarlet Pimpernel. Within fifteen minutes we witness the show’s first beheading on an extremely effective construct of a guillotine. A lighting effect that cuts to black the moment the blade fell created gasps followed by applause from an appreciative audience. Plus, when our dashing hero and his League of the Scarlet Pimpernel cross the water in a ship constructed together from pieces before us, film of crashing waves is projected on the east and west side walls of the theatre throwing not only the cast but all of us into the middle of the English Channel. It’s the kind of thing that Hale Centre Theatre does exceptionally well.
Perhaps the best effect of all, however, is how Sir Percy manages to convince his upper-society friends to join his league when there’s nothing to suggest that any of them could ever hold a sword, let alone fight. Living a lavish lifestyle like a bunch of privileged ninnies where the kind of lace they wear around their necks is of paramount importance while the one thing that makes their blood boil is not the injustices to mankind but having to endure a cold cup of tea, you can’t help wondering how is it that they’re able to suddenly turn into avenging angels fighting their own infinity war. Yet, once you look past the show’s narrative leap and simply accept that somehow these nincompoops can fight, you’re rooting for them all the way.
The Scarlet Pimpernel continues at Hale Centre Theatre in Gilbert until October 6
Pictures Courtesy of Nick Woodward-Shaw