Romance! Betrayal! Heroics! A swashbuckling aristocrat in comic disguise performing secret noble deeds! A songbird bride guilt-ridden over a concealed indiscretion! It’s all in the the 1905 popular potboiler novella The Scarlet Pimpernel that was transformed into a lofty 1997 Broadway musical – and brought lovingly to life on the Hale Center Theater Orem stage in a smashing production.
Pimpernel is set in the time period of the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror in which innocent men, women, and children by the thousands were beheaded. With less serious pretensions than that other musical about French history, Les Misérables, Pimpernel is an entertaining musical romp that tips its hat to a bygone romantic genre.
This is a demanding show to pull off for many reasons: the vocal quality required to deliver the numbers, the numerous sets, and the lavish costuming to create the opulence of the period. But HCTO clearly enjoyed putting this production together, and the enthusiasm is evident and infectious.
Pimpernel is buoyed by the ardent, tonally rich cast. Greg Hansen (alternating with Neal C. Johnson, TThSa) swaggers, preens, and sings his way into the audience’s heart as Percy Blakeney. His is a plum role, and you cannot help but be drawn to the character. Hansen maneuvers three uniquely different roles: the polite and dignified gentleman, the Belgian spy Grappin, and the “silly nincompoop” only interested in fashion and frippery. Under his command, “Into the Fire” is the stirring, manly anthem as it was written. While Hansen clearly is having fun with the foppish comedy, particularly as he leads his League of the Scarlet Pimpernel in “The Creation of Man,” a little more subtlety would be welcomed. (Thankfully the song was so boisterous that no one heard me sing along with the line “Be the king of the beasts in pastels!”)
As Margueritte St. Just, Rachael Lynn Woodward (Lauren Noll, TThSa) is equally impressive with her vocal quality and clearly showed the anguish she feels at her husband’s neglect. She manages her character’s French accent well (working with dialect coach Emily Burnworth). Woodward nails both her big-finish solos (a staple of composer Frank Wildhorn) and the romantic duets. She sounded especially sweet in “When I Look at You” and looks smashing in the snow-white pompadour donned in the Comédie Française “Storybook” that establishes the romantic triangle at the heart of the story. The duet “You Are My Home” with Hansen is especially fine.
As evil Citizen Chauvelin, Dave Burton (Matthew Flynn Bellows, TThSa) brings fire-breathing charisma as tries to discover the identity of his rival who leaves notes signed with his seal of a little red flower. Burton has the cast’s best singing voice: He has a strong baritone and sings with fervent modulation. His “Falcon in the Dive” is a masterful interpretation of the soaring ballad. He can be demonic but also shows great tenderness in “Where’s the Girl?”
Other standouts: Matthew Call is sincere as Marguerite’s brother, Armand; Brock Kannan has the right degree of wry amusement and faux seriousness as Farleigh; Jacob Shamy as Elton and Kyle Fotheringham as Dewhurst also shine along with the rest of the male chorus, singing beautifully.
The set changes were slick, and minimal period furnishings were used to keep the stage clear for movement of the large, 26-member cast. But the pièce de résistance of the scenic design by Bobby Swenson is the towering guillotine that slices off two heads within our clear view. And of course, there’s the sword play dashingly executed under fight choreographer Matthew Carlin. Only occasionally did the audience wish the stage were a bit larger for Marin Leggat’s choreography. Director David Morgan is to be commended for showing clear purpose as he navigates the show’s pageantry and action.
Scarlet Pimpernel, just like its hero, seems to quickly come and then disappear only to quietly reappear. But with another production as fine as HCTO’s, I can only join with Percy to declare: “Oh, sink me!”