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A CurtainUp Review

The Scarlet Pimpernel

In case anyone reading this is not familiar with the story of this first in a whole series of what in the book trade is known as the category romance or romance-adventure novel, The Scarlet Pimpernel is about the double life of an English nobleman. While pretending to be a foppish wastrel, he and a group of eleven other Englishman periodically dash over to France to rescue victims of the Reign of Terror following the French revolution from the guillotine. To lace the adventure with romantic tension, Percy (a.k.a. The Pimpernel) discovers that his French bride may be a spy for Robespierre's terrorists. His pretend wimpishness in the name of his cause, leads to marital estrangement (until the inevitable happy ending).

Here's the one rhyme that made it the Baroness Orczy's popular romantic potboiler into Bartlett's Familiar Quotations:

We seek him here, we seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven--is he in hell?
That damned elusive Pimpernel?

We hear about him here, we read about him there,
Those show promoters are hyping him everywhere.
Will Pimpernel go to musical heaven--or show biz hell?

This prompts the following rewrite of that bit of doggerel:

Whether foppish or brave
His performance rates a rave
Will the show have legs or go to show biz hell?
Sills star will shine beyond this Pimpernel.

Besides summing up The Scarlet Pimpernel's major asset -- its very appealing star, Broadway newcomer Douglas Sills -- this rhyme also epitomizes what's right and wrong with this show.

You see, besides making it into Bartlett's, this little couplet has also been developed into the second act's opening number, (surprise! surprise!) "They Seek Him Here" for Percy (a.k.a. Pimpernel) and the English ensemble. This number epitomizes the show's success as a campy romp. With Sill's foppish alter ego leading the way, the English Prince (David Cromwell) and his entourage decked out in some of Jane Greenwood's most amusing costumes milk the little rhyme for all its worth. The number also points to a certain awkwardness in the few attempts at choreographing the show, (by Adam Pelty), to give it a sense of movement and grace and the overall incompatibility of Frank Wildhorn's easy-listening romantic ballads with the camped-up take on the book that director Peter Hunt . seems to have in mind but fails to consistently pursue.

 In spite of its mishmash personality--part earnest romantic adventure with pretensions towards theater as history lesson, the show may well find an audience that will overlook its very lengthy first act and firm ties to a classic of schlock fiction rather than classic fiction (i.e. A Tale of Two Cities which I've always thought would make a dandy, if serious, musical). Also sure to be amongst its boosters are the same critics-be-damned fans who have kept Jekyll and Hyde (our review ) selling tickets at the Plymouth since last April. Wildhorn's music does have a nice beat that at times soars to a level well above its top-40 mediocrity--specifically, "The Creation of Man" by Percy, his men, and the prince of Wales; "Only Love" by Christine Andreas who plays Marguerite.

 To add to the musical's stronger elements, audiences are certainly getting a show that bears all the lavish details of a megabucks production: To get things rolling there are two chandeliers that rise as the show opens (a reverse of the descending chandelier at the Metropolitan Opera). The scene shifts from Paris to England and back. Sets pop up seemingly out of nowhere -- like the bookcases that rise to create Percy's study and war room which in turn cleverly metamorphoses into a sailing vessel that docks in Paris with the aristocrats appropriately transformed into ordinary Parisian citizens. At the end we practically feel ourselves in the carriage with Marguerite and her brother (Giles Chiasson) speeding away from the bloodthirsty revolutionary Chauvelin (Terrence Mann). And of course, there's the sword play dashingly executed by Sills and Mann ( directed by Rick Sordelet).

If only there were more of it! Perhaps a scene actually showing Chauvelin and a masked Percy in a derring-do rescue would not only liven up some of the dead spots, but stir the capable Mann out of his at times trance-like performance.

To end on a final quibble. With all the money lavished on this musical, it seems to me that it should have had a language as well as a fight supervisor. Such a supervisor could have addressed the somewhat strange lack of French accents by the French characters (Marguerite excepted--and there only when she speaks and not when she sings).

See the end of the production notes for some background notes on the book that inspired the musical.

Based on the novel by Baroness Orczy
Book and lyrics by Nan Knighton 
Music by Frank Wildhorn 
Directed by Peter Hunt 
Starring: Douglas Sills, Terence Mann, Christine Andreas 
With Gilles Chiasson, Elizabeth Ward, David Cromwell and others 
Minskoff, 1515 Broadway (at 44th-45th Sts (307-4100).  Set Design: Andrew Jacknesss
Costumes: Jane Greenwood
Lighting: Natasha Katz
Sound: Karl Richardson
Musical Director, Vocal Arrangements: Ron Melrose
Special Effects: Jim Steinmeyer
Fight Director: Rick Sordelet

Performances begin 10/07/97; opens 11/09/97 
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer 11/14 

Some Background Notes on the Novel that Inspired the Musical
Unlike Victor Hugo's Les Miserables which is on many high school reading lists, The Scarlet Pimpernel is not quite in that novel's great classics category. That's not to say it isn't a good read which understandably inspired seven movie adaptations and now, at long last, a musical. Here to put you in the mood for that event, some more facts about the history of this historic saga of the Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution.

The Scarlet Pimpernel stories are the work of the Hungarian born English writer and playwright Baroness Emmuska Orczy (1865-1947).

Written in 1904 after the Baroness had been writing detective stories, Pimpernel began its literary life as a series of adventure stories. In 1905, the author dramatized it in collaboration with her husband, Montagu W. Barstow.

The novel is filled with seething, passionate prose, with the opening serving as an example: "A surging, seething, murmuring crowd of beings that are human only in name, for to the eye and ear they seem naught but savage creatures, animated by vile passion and by the lust of vengeance and of hate."

Other, less remembered Orczy novels include Son of the People, 1906; Beau Brocade 1908--dramatized in 1910; Castles in the Air, 1921; Nicolette, 1923; The Divine Folly 1937.

Of the seven movie versions of Pimpernel, the most famous is the golden oldie 1932 version starring Leslie Howard as Percy/Pimpernel. ( He also played Ashley in Gone With the Wind and Professor Higgins in Pygmalion).

Another popular movie adaption of Pimpernel is the 1982 made-for-TV version starring Jane Seymour, Anthony Andrews and Ian McKellen which is better than most such productions.

The title which represents Percy's crest stems from the definition of the herb bearing that name. The pimpernel herb has purple and white flowers that close at the approach of bad weather

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