“Scarlet Pimpernel”

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
August 10, 2000

Somewhat recommended

Fop by day, dashing hero by night, Sir Percy is the central character in “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” a swashbuckling musical comedy set during the French Revolution.

That’s right. Swashbuckling. Musical. Comedy. Of the three elements, the comedy works best in this play, where the generic music does little to set the tone.

The production–which opened Wednesday night at the Shubert Theatre–comes courtesy of Frank Wildhorn, whose other weird musicals include “Jekyll & Hyde” and “Civil War.” His musicals have a strong pop edge that don’t fit the period pieces he’s trying to create.

And in “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” Nan Knighton’s uninspired lyrics don’t help the cause either.

There is not one signature song that theatergoers will remember, as they do after a performance of “Les Miserables,” “Evita” or, heck, even “Cats.”

The generic opening song, “Storybook,” sounds as if it could’ve been nicked from a Lawrence Welk catalog.

That said, the performers do a formidable job with what they’re given. William Paul Michals’ voice resonates with emotion, and it is his vocals that stand out in every number.

Portraying Chauvelin, a man obsessed with both Percy’s alter ego, the Scarlet Pimpernel, and Percy’s beautiful wife, Marguerite, Michals exudes charismatic evil. When he is on stage, he commands it–not unlike Tom Cruise’s duplicitous character in “Magnolia.”

As for the Scarlet Pimpernel–which Percy nicked from his aristocratic English family’s crest–well, never mind that it’s a rather silly nom de plume for a daring revolutionary. It doesn’t exactly resonate with the dashing zing of, say, Zorro.But perhaps back in the day when the French Revolution was raging, pimpernels were to be feared and respected.

The comedic elements in the play work surprisingly well, though the laughs are sometimes milked, sitcom style. For instance, Percy decides that the best way to stop speculation that he might be the Pimpernel is to act as fey as possible. So he and his followers wear dandy outfits and squeal like little schoolgirls. Cheap laughs, sure, but they’re funny.

As the Scarlet Pimpernel, Robert Patteri is a dashing hero. But his best moments occur when he portrays Sir Percy. A strapping actor with a square jawline, Patteri’s physical looks are a striking contrast to the mincing manners he utilizes as Percy.

Perhaps because Marguerite is harboring her own secrets, the French bride doesn’t seem to notice that her formerly amorous husband is acting pretty darned gay.

The play actually has a good time playing with the stereotype of English men and their masculinity. When the Prince of Wales gets a look at Percy’s resplendently foppish attire, he’s only too happy to pull out similar pieces from his wardrobe.

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