"THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL," through Nov. 24, Hale Centre Theatre, 9900 South Monroe Street, Sandy, Utah (801-984-9000 or hct.org); running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes (one intermission)
SANDY — There’s nothing understated in Hale Centre Theatre’s new production of the Tony-nominated musical “The Scarlet Pimpernel.” From sets showcasing a massive guillotine and a three-tiered carousel to the nobility’s outrageously gaudy frocks, the lavish designs merely keep step with the numerous power ballads and over-the-top humor. None of its heavy excesses, however, can keep this musical from being a lightweight.
Directed by John J. Sweeney and produced by Sally Dietlein, the swashbuckling tale follows the adventures of a British aristocrat named Percy Blakeney (played by Keith McKay Evans on Monday/Wednesday/Friday and Daniel Beck on Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday), and his league of gents, who double as fops while secretly saving innocents from the head-chopping Jacobins during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror.
To deflect suspicion, the league’s buffoonish disguises as fashion-obsessed dandies garner the brunt of the laughs, with the song “The Creation of Man” at its comedic epicenter. Yet underneath their powdered wigs — and with a bit of Monty Python-esque flair — the league interrupts the daily beheadings and smuggles poor souls across the channel through the art of distraction: whether dressing in drag or spooking soldiers as Caesar’s ghost.
No tale of adventure is complete without romance, and this one involves a love triangle between Percy, his new wife Marguerite (Amy Shreeve Keeler on Monday/Wednesday/Friday and Erin Royall Carlson on Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday) and Percy’s ruthless enemy, Chauvelin (played by Quinn Allan Dietlein on Monday/Wednesday/Friday and Dallyn Vail Bayles on Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday).
When Percy learns that Marguerite has been feeding information to the enemy, he suddenly — to her bewilderment — turns cold. Communication, it turns out, is at the root of their troubles. If only Marguerite knew her husband was the heroic Scarlet Pimpernel and if only Percy knew that his wife was being blackmailed by her old flame, Chauvelin. Their misunderstandings resulted in some rather badly paced and ridiculous unwindings.
In Friday's performance, Evans played a convincing and extremely loveable portrait of a romantic hero and British twit. His booming tenor voice sounded tailor-made for the role of Pimpernel, while his melodramatic mugging as well as his tenderness and depth (like in the song "Prayer") showed off his ability to switch between his two personas.
Keeler's Marguerite seemed eager to explore something beyond the forsaken-wife persona, yet she was limited by her lines and songs, which sometimes felt a bit whiny — no matter how she attempted to deconstruct them. However, her supernal voice carried the night, especially during the number “When I Look at You.”
Her clothes helped her performance, as well. Donning costume designer Kelsey Nichols' period designs, Marguerite's frocks knew no bounds — from laces to beading to brocades, Keeler and her fellow upper-crust ladies look like ribbon-trimmed wedding cakes.
By contrast, Chauvelin the villanous rogue, wore the plain black popular in the new French republic — fodder for the flamboyant and fashionable Percy. Seemingly aloof and detached in the brooding role, Dietlein’s passion was unearthed only when lost in song — where he certainly shone. Unfortunately for him, as for the other members of this talented cast, the music was overall unmemorable.
Frank Wildhorn’s belting-heavy score isn’t unpleasant; it just doesn’t stick. There’s nothing to hum from the pop-tinged and often melodramatic set, and I suspect there isn’t much demand for the "Pimpernel" playlist.2 comments on this story
Despite the lackluster score, the songs are well-executed — thanks to music director Anne Puzey and the fine voices she worked with.
The adventure-packed, absurdly funny and visually stunning stage action made up the difference for this musical running high on fun but a bit low on depth or catchy tunes. Also running low are available tickets — it seems HCT wasn’t exaggerating its claim that "The Scarlet Pimpernel" is a Utah audience favorite.
Content advisory: "The Scarlet Pimpernel" contains a few mild swear words, sword fighting and has a guillotine that actually appears to behead.