OREM — The Scarlet Pimpernel, with music by Frank Wildhorn and a book and lyrics by Nan Knighton, has become a Utah favorite among community theatres throughout the state with its memorable score and lighthearted humor. It takes place during the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution and follows the story of Sir Percy, a wealthy English baronet who rescues individuals sentenced to death at the guillotine. With each rescue he taunts his enemies by leaving behind a card showing a small flower—a scarlet pimpernel. The identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel becomes the topic of widespread popular interest and the hero himself becomes the subject of an international manhunt by the French authorities. To hide his true identity, Sir Percy presents himself in everyday life as a “fop,” who cares only for wearing the latest fashions and takes no notice of world affairs. His secret is kept by a band of friends known as “the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel.” The league operates as an undercover team in enacting Sir Percy’s rescue plans.
Though a popular musical selection by community theatres and art councils in the state, The Scarlet Pimpernel has its challenges to pull off successfully. Notably, Knighton’s book has some significant flaws in the plot and development of the scenes and characters and many of Wildhorn’s musical numbers, though they have beautiful melodies, do little to further the plot on their own. In order for Wildhorn’s musicals to be successful, excellent acting and directing are required to compensate for these challenges in the writing. Unfortunately the SCERA actors and director were not able to overcome such challenges in this production.I was most disappointed in Jerry Elison’s direction of this show. I found the blocking to be unnatural and often unmotivated, the stage and set were underutilized, the ensemble was sloppily staged, and the leads lacked depth in their emotions and interactions. Much of the plot was lost due to this lack of refinement of the movement, and many scenes lacked much-needed subtext and believability. I was also not impressed with Penny Colvin’s choreography which consisted of little more than step-touches, pivot turns, and jazz squares. These simple steps did little to contribute to the storyline or enhance the world the play lived in.
It is impossible for The Scarlet Pimpernel to be a success without three strong leads. The role of Sir Percy Blakeney requires an actor able to convincingly play several roles. Stephen Gashler (Percy) lacked the depth and dimension necessary to deliver a memorable performance. At the top of the show leading to his wedding, it is imperative that the audience sees Percy’s undying love and great excitement for his wife to be. However, I saw little emotional depth or chemistry between him and Marguerite St. Just. When Percy suspects his wife has betrayed him, I wanted to see his great agony and the depths of his despair, as his heart is about to break. Yet I did not feel this agony in Gashler’s performance and his ballad “Prayer” was flat and full of unnatural gestures. Gashler’s lack of chemistry and emotion also made “She Was There” less powerful, which weakened its pivotal importance later in the story. Gashler was more successful in playing “Percy the fop” and provided some entertaining scenes such as the scene where Chauvelin comes to visit him and his wife and all Percy is interested in is fashion. However, without setting Percy up as the romantic lead, full of passion and love early in the show, this transition into Percy the fop was less entertaining than it could have been. Percy must also be a passionate and powerful leader that leads his men into battle, rallying them to this noble cause. I missed seeing this passion in his performance and consequently numbers like “Into the Fire” were less moving or inspiring.
Kelsey Mariner Thacker, as Margureite St. Just, had a much stronger voice than her counterpart, though she suffered from many of the same problems. There was a lack of connection to the material and as a result she delivered a very superficial performance. Therefore, songs like “When I Look At You” and “I’ll Forget You” were less than moving and did not reveal into the soul of her character. In these songs (and other scenes), Thanker’s emoting bordered on melodrama, most notably in “Where’s the Girl?” This can be a powerful song where we wonder if she will succumb to Chauvelin’s advances. But Kelsey Mariner Thacker did not allow herself to be drawn into him, and Marguerite came across as pouting. Therefore, her melodramatic yell to “Get out!” at the end of the song came across as unintentional comedy rather than the dramatic moment that was intended.
Chauvelin, played by Bryan Thacker, was the strongest of the three leads both vocally and in his acting choices. He encompassed the role of antagonist with a masculine demeanor and he listened and responded to his fellow actors better, providing a nice contrast to the effeminate Percy in many scenes that added to the comedy of the story. Vocally his voice was very powerful in “Where’s the Girl?” and “Falcon in the Dive.” However, I wanted more variety in his musical performances; each verse in a song should reveal more about his character and progress the story. Bryan Thacker also encompassed a lot of parallel gestures (such as his arms mirroring each other in ways that are not natural and felt somewhat disconnected to his body), which made him feel artificial at times.
A lot of humor came from Percy’s band of men, with several strong performances including Elton (Justin Stockett) and Ben (Kristian Huff). Their number “The Creation of Man” was especially funny. Vocally the harmonies were not as tight as I would have liked and there was an incongruity between the band of men; some of them appeared modern and contemporary in their mannerisms and articulation, and others seemed more classical. Despite these flaws, the band of men provided some great laughs and were a high point of the production.
The large ensemble encompassed a variety of newcomers to the stage in the true sense of community theatre. Though they were somewhat of a nebulous entity and I wish director Jerry Eliason had helped them to create believable characters of their own, instead of having them serve as props in scenes that required crowds. So much could have been done with this ensemble to create interesting tableaus, pictures and create a believable world in which the play lived. Yet the ensemble was underutilized or given much direction. Consequently they did little to contribute to the story or scenes they were in, and the few choices that were made seemed put-on or cartoonish. Better direction could have solved a lot of these issues.
The greatest strengths of the production largely came from the production and design teams. I was impressed with the set, designed by Teri Griffin, and how well it created a variety of places and scenes throughout the show with quick transitions and scene changes. I was especially impressed with how the various platforms pieced together mid-song to create a full ship on stage, complete with a sail. Kelsey Seaver‘s costuming impressed me for its ability to capture the time period of the show and create a visually stunning production with period wigs, large dresses, and an array of colors. This was no small feat with a cast of this size, as hundreds of costumes had to be created for the production. I also was pleased by the sound design of Kendall Bowman. A large outdoor amphitheater and such a large cast can be very challenging, yet Bowman kept a great mix between the voices and the vocal tracks with no noticeable popping or faltering microphones.
Despite its weaknesses, there is some work in The Scarlet Pimpernel that is laudable, and many casual theatregoers will find much that they like. SCERA is to be commended for attempting a difficult show instead of “playing it safe” for their summer season. Many who attend this production will enjoy it more than I have, but few will probably say that it is their favorite show of the year.