KPBS AIRDATE: DECEMBER 1, 2000
It was one of those remarkable moments that only happens in live theater. On opening night of “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” 20 minutes into the show, the stage was suddenly bare and the suspension of disbelief was shattered by a voice-of-God booming over the Civic Theatre P.A. system. There would be a delay, we were told, because of “a little accident backstage.” The houselights came up, and after a brief period of buzzing speculation, the voice said that Robert Patteri, who played the title character, had injured his vocal cords, and his understudy, Aaron Paul, would go on. In a mere 12 minutes, this guy was out there, picking up the slack, singing out his heart and capturing the audience’s to boot. It was a seamless bit of thrilling theatricality.
As always in these cases, the audience was totally supportive of this hapless actor who had to step out of the blackness and take on a major role he hadn’t begun. Understudies have gone on before at the Civic Theatre, but never, in its 25 years of bringing national touring companies to San Diego, had this happened in the middle of a scene. Rumor has it that Paul understudied Douglas Sills, the original, Tony-winning Pimpernel. He was definitely up to the task, with a strong voice, an appealing presence and affecting comic antics. His pluck and talent earned him a standing ovation at the end.
“The Scarlet Pimpernel” started as a novel, by the Hungarian-born English Baroness Emmuska Orczy, a 1905 potboiler set during the French Revolution. The show has undergone so many revisions since its 1997 Broadway opening that this tour is being called Version 4.0.
It’s the story of a British aristocrat, Sir Percy Blakeney, who, at home in England, acts the part of a superficial society fop, in order to conceal his secret identity as the dashing Scarlet Pimpernel. In case you didn’t know, a pimpernel is a flower of the primrose family. It also happens to be Sir Percy’s family crest, and he leaves it behind as his mark, whenever he swaggers into France to rescue doomed former nobles from, as one song puts it, “Madame Guillotine.”
The Pimpernel is a great role because he’s a comicbook superhero from the 18th century; he gets to be selfless and swashbuckling, he gets the girl, and he also gets a great wardrobe. The love interest is his French wife, Marguerite, inconsistently sung by Amy Bodnar. A warm and beautiful baritone oozes from the villain of the piece, Chauvelin, a character not unlike Javert in “Les Miz,” a role William Michals has also played, undoubtedly with equal skill.
The story is pretty treacly at times, but it’s silly good fun. Frank Wildhorn’s schmaltzy, pop-music score, though often pedestrian and derivative, really hits the mark on occasion, something he never achieved in his dreadful “Jekyll and Hyde.” The staging is uninspired, but there are a few show-stopping moments, like the rousing “Into the Fire,” which features
a magical transformation from an English library to a sailing ship to a town square in France. The sets and costumes alone are worth the price of admission. The musical may be melodramatic, but it isn’t totally mindless. After all, it venerates brains over brawn. I can’t promise the high drama of opening night, but “The Scarlet Pimpernel” delivers the glitzy goods.
MUSIC, under and out: “Into the Fire”
©2000 Patté Productions Inc.