Friday, April 16, 2010
Concord Players present The Scarlet Pimpernel
Long before Clark Kent slipped into that telephone booth and changed into his red and blue Superman costume, and before Bruce Wayne charged up the Batmobile or the Lone Ranger donned his mask, there was the Scarlet Pimpernel. The Pimpernel began life as a short story written by the Baroness Emma Orczy, a naturalized British citizen born in Hungary. He first entered the public eye in 1903 as the title character of a play written by the Baroness and her husband, and by 1905 the Baroness had novelized him into a book that became so popular that it allowed her and her husband to live in luxury for the rest of their lives. The “Scarlet Pimpernel” is the pseudonym of a mysterious British hero who rescues doomed aristocrats from Madame La Guillotine in the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution.
The costumed hero and rescuer of innocents is, as we know, the stuff of Hollywood, and from his beginnings as the hero on stage to his first movie appearance in 1917, the Pimpernel has delighted generations of moviegoers. Perhaps the most famous film iterations of The Scarlet Pimpernel have been the 1934 version starring Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon and the 1982 version starring Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour and Sir Ian McKellen.
In 1991, Pimpernel surfaced again as a workshop to develop a Broadway show, and in 1997 it opened as a Broadway musical. With music by Frank Wildhorn and book and lyrics by Nan Knighton, who also brought Jekyll and Hyde to the musical stage, it ran for three years and enjoyed a U.S. national tour as well.
The Scarlet Pimpernel is a lush costume drama with an equally lush orchestral scoring, reminiscent of Les Miserables. It is a “big” musical, more in keeping with the older classic Broadway shows like South Pacific, The King and I and My Fair Lady. However, it bridges the gap between those older shows and later ones by incorporating into the score music with a modern feel. The love ballad, for example, “You Are My Home,” is a long way from a recreation of an 18th-century aria and owes more stylistic allegiance to soft rock music. A contemporary style choice weaves in and out of the music as a whole, and if it is perhaps jarring to purists, it also renders the characters more emotionally current and their situation more empathetic to modern theatergoers.
The show requires a great deal of its performers, instrumentalists and technicians. The three principal characters, hero Percy, love-interest Marguerite and villain Chauvelin, are caught in a triangle that forces them to deceive, spy, emote and play different characters or character types depending on their fast-changing situations in a complex plot, and to sing music that touches the extremes of their vocal ranges. The ensemble is by turns a mob of revolutionaries, a shabby group of aristocratic prisoners, or a group of wealthy British nobles, as the circumstances demand. Costume and set designers cope with hundreds of costume changes and several elaborate locales. Pimpernel is a rich and challenging piece of theater.
The Concord Players will bring the musical to the stage of 51 Walden beginning April 23 for an eight-show run (details below). Directed by Corey Jackson, with musical direction by Mario Cruz, it features Ethan Butler as Percy, James Tallach as Chauvelin and Sarah Jackson as Marguerite, as well as a really impressive working guillotine designed and built by Carlisle’s Allen Bantly. Butler was last seen in Carlisle as Frederick in the Savoyard Light Opera Company’s production of The Pirates of Penzance. Jackson performed in the Concord Players’ productions of She Loves Me and Cabaret and Tallach makes his debut with the company in this show.
Last Wednesday evening, the company was engaged in what is amusingly called a “stumble-through,” which means a first run-through of the entire show with stops and repeats. The evening was warm, and the side doors of the theater were thrown open to catch what breezes there were. Women wore “working dress” of padded corsets and long skirts over their street clothes to help them gauge their movement and breathing. Men wore pieces of costumes as well. Each scene underwent refining and polishing, and in the meantime, elaborate wigs were fitted to warm heads and actors experimented with fast costume changes and quick transitions from scene to scene. They rehearsed fight choreography, including, of course, an exciting duel, as well as dance choreography, as the action zigzagged between England and France. Lighting and scenery were adjusted, props tested and in general, the work of several weeks of rehearsal and construction were showing signs of coalescing into a piece of extravagantly entertaining theater.
Sarah Jackson, as Marguerite St. Just, and some of the male ensemble dancers open the show in 1793 as performers in the Comédie-Française with a charming and melancholy song called, “Storybook.” Marguerite is leaving the theater, going off to marry the handsome Englishman, Sir Percy Blakeney, and this is her swan song. It comes not a moment too soon, as the musical replicates history with the closing of the theater by the revolutionary committee. The historical closing of the theater happened in that year after a performance of the supposedly seditious play, Pamela, and the actors were thrown into prison, but here, the scene serves as a dramatic transition to the next ensemble number that places us in the thick of the Reign of Terror. “Madame Guillotine,” a truly frightening and very powerful chorus number, leaves us in no doubt of the sheer horror of being in the midst of a mob and under the threat of that uniquely nasty form of execution. “Madame Guillotine” is a blockbuster production number, setting the shrieking tone of the revolution and igniting the adventurous plot that follows.
The Concord Players have, at every level of role from extra to lead, a company of extraordinarily fine voices that do every justice to the demands of the music of The Scarlet Pimpernel. They sweep the audience along with its power and poignancy. The Players have captured the essence of this swashbuckling adventure in its moment in history, the “days of glory, days of rage” when “the weak will cower while the fittest will survive” (Chauvelin, “Falcon in the Dive.”) Perhaps the most ambitious production the Players have attempted yet, The Scarlet Pimpernel promises us a great evening of theater. ∆
© 2010 The Carlisle Mosquito