The Scarlet Pimpernel

Minskoff Theatre - November 1997

Review by John Kenrick

Whatever is right or wrong with it, The Scarlet Pimpernel has performed the glorious task of bringing Christine Andreas back to Broadway. This alone wins it a permanent place in the Musicals101 hall of fame. In the 1970's and early 80's, Ms. Andreas dazzled Broadway in stunning revivals of My Fair Lady, Oklahoma and On Your Toes. To see her back gives many theatre buffs reason to cheer. The only problem is that the show she's starring in is not quite on a par with her past vehicles. Pimpernel is not a bad show, but it certainly is not one of the all time greats.

"They seek him here, they seek him there . . ." and they still seek the elusive key to making The Scarlet Pimpernel into a great show. Its new producers, Madison Square Garden Productions, intend to re-stage and re-cast the show even though it’s many months into its Broadway run. Perhaps they see the property as a promising addition to their annual cycle of lavish touring productions (Christmas Carol, Wizard of Oz). I hope they succeed. The current Pimpernel has many lovely things to offer, but I do think its creators stopped a bit short of making it the show it could be.

It’s a great idea for a musical. I’ve thought so ever since I fell in love with the wonderful movie versions starring Leslie Howard and Anthony Andrews. All that romance and swashbuckling would be perfect material for a 1920’s-style costume operetta. The only problem is, who could write a Desert Song or New Moon for the 1990’s? Is there another Sigmund Romberg out there?

Composer Frank Wildhorn and lyricist Nan Knighton give it one hell of a try, but the score as heard in the current Broadway production is slightly schizophrenic. It can’t decide whether it wants to emulate Romberg ("Into the Fire"), Andrew Lloyd Webber, or Jonathan Larson. Any one approach might have worked, all three at once do not. Ms. Knighton’s book occasionally loses focus and takes bits of the story too seriously, but she often injects some much-needed humor in the proceedings, humor that the score could have used a great deal more of. Swashbuckle without a smile is little if any fun.

The other major problem seems to be director Peter Hunt. His understated approach, leaving people standing or sitting idly much of the time, worked well for the original 1776, but has failed in several other shows since. Pimpernel called for someone with a sense of dash to offset the possible stuffiness of its period setting. Hunt’s approach slows down lively moments and makes quieter scenes appear semi-comatose. The "good guys" merely mean well and the "bad guys" are merely unpleasant. Without praiseworthy heroes and despicable villains, a story like this has no swash in its buckle.

On the plus side, Pimpernel has as fine a cast and physical production as any show could hope for. The sets and costumes are always lavish and occasionally breathtaking – as when a sailing ship materializes in the middle of "Into the Fire." Terrance Mann does another fine turn as the evil Chauvelin, even though he is saddled with some of the score’s weakest songs. The divine Christine Andreas looks and sounds magnificent as Marguerite, but the role as written gives her limited opportunities. Even the lush "Only Love" retreats from the kind of musical climax she could have used to stop the show.

No limits are placed on Douglas Sills, a Broadway newcomer who gives a super-star performance in the title role. It’s the kind of bravura performance Alfred Drake was once known for, with beautiful singing and flawless acting that fills the theatre with Mr. Sills presence. Here is the sort of new musical stage star we are not supposed to see anymore!

So if The Scarlet Pimpernel is not My Fair Lady, that's no tragedy. Like Take Me Along or Flower Drum Song, it's a less-than-perfect but rather entertaining show. You may not adore it, but odds are musical lovers won't regret seeing it.

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