Scarlet Pimpernel and Chess
Upon publication in 1900, who would have guessed that "The Scarlet Pimpernel", an adventurous tale of romance 'n' revolution, would garner such popularity over the course of a century? Several subsequent novels, a gaggle of feature films, and a classic Daffy Duck spoof later, the inevitable has occurred: Broadway has latched onto this story and, frankly, refuses to let it go. Resting upon the adage that vast projects cannot be solved with half-vast ideas, Frank Wildhorn & Co. have brainstormed and tinkered and, at long last, crafted their musical version of The Scarlet Pimpernel into an absolute theatrical gem, rich with humor and smashing good fun.
For version 3.0, they have assembled an all-new principal cast, which includes several Broadway favorites. Most notably, 1999 Tony nominee (Parade) Carolee Carmello delivers a soaring, heartfelt performance as the lusty French actress, Marguerite, a woman torn between the man she loves and the past she is trying to escape. Carolee's expressive manner, coupled with her voluptuous vocal power, only enhances Wildhorn's music. Nan Knighton provides lyrics, and together, they have created a colorful score chocked-full of gut-busting ballads and playful character songs. Knighton also serves as book writer for Pimpernel. She smartly has chosen to bring Sir Percy's faux foppishness to center stage and quell some of the minor subplots, as opposed to Baroness Orczy's complex, more straight-laced (however glorious) novel.
Ron Bohmer (above, on left), one of my personal favorite Sunset Blvd alums, portrays the title character, and, as the show progresses, the shadow of former-star Douglas Sills slowly fades into the not-so-distant memory. Ron adds a depth to this character that makes his well-sung, well-acted performance all the more compelling. I cannot quite put my finger on it, but he manages to totally nail the dramatic, compassionate elements of the character; also, his comic timing works well and should refine as he settles into the role. Former 'Gaston' (Beauty and the Beast) Marc Kudisch (above, on right) does an admirable job playing The Pimpernel's relentless nemesis Chauvelin, and lack of fire never proves to be a problem. The man has an unmistakably carnal charm and absolutely enshrouds the stage with passion upon ascending his blessed guillotine. The higher range of certain songs seemed to throw his pitch occasionally, but such a minute complaint is nothing to gripe about. [Also see Harper's interview with Marc Kudisch]
For a show to pull off such a marked transformation is no mean feat, and director/choreographer Robert Longbottom (Side Show) deserves plenty of credit for pulling this theatrical one-eighty. His direction molds a sweetly romantic atmosphere, and, thankfully, he never allows the show to shoot itself in the foot by spiraling into some overly melodramatic piffle. Andrew Jackness' scenic designs also add to this dreamy ambience.
And the quasi-period costumes by Jane Greenwood? La, but they are breathtaking!
In short, this wonderful musical adventure is not to be missed. Take your family; take your friends; and be prepared to walk out of the theatre with a grand smile on your face.
Radio City Entertainment and Ted Forstmann present Ron Bohmer, Marc Kudisch, and Carolee Carmello in The Scarlet Pimpernel, music by Frank Wildhorn, book and lyrics by Nan Knighton. Based on the novel The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy. With Kirk McDonald, David Cromwell, Harvey Evans, Peter Flynn, Russell Garrett, Drew Geraci, Danny Gurwin, Cynthia Leigh Heim, James Hindman, Emily Hsu, Alicia Irving, Elizabeth Ward Land, Ken Land, David Masenheimer, Robb McKindles, Katie Nutt, Elizabeth O' Neill, Jessica Phillips, Terry Richmond, Laura Schutter, Matthew Shepard, Jennifer Smith, Stephonne Smith, David St. Louis, James Van Treuren, and Charles West. Directed and choreographed by Robert Longbottom. The Scarlet Pimpernel is a presentation of the Theatre of the Stars.
Not exactly peas in a pod, you say? Think again.
Each of the above is well represented in the Alliance Theatre Company's splendid revival of Tim Rice, Bjorn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson's aptly named musical, Chess.
Since its introduction via concept album in the early 80s, Chess has endured a volatile existence. It won popular acclaim in London, starring Elaine Paige and Murray Head, but faltered on Broadway, closing after only two months. In the ensuing period, it has popped up occasionally, in concert form and in regional stagings. Director David H. Bell is no stranger to the piece and, after directing acclaimed productions in Long Beach, Chicago, and Pittsburgh, Bell has now brought his version of Chess to Atlanta.
We begin in Budapest. The year is 1979. It is the beginning of the face-off between the Soviet Union and the US in a high stakes, international chess competition. Freddie, the precocious American, and Anatoly, the Soviet, prepare to go into battle. Each feels confident of his imminent victory, until Freddie's "second," Florence, begins to fall for Anatoly, thus beginning a chain of events that will forever change the lives of all involved in this most dangerous game.
This complex situation (which can hardly be described in a one paragraph summary) makes for many juicy roles and potential performances. In the pivotal role of Florence, Kim Huber gives a breathtaking performance, one that will undoubtedly stay with this theatre-goer for many, many years to come. Kim slips into the difficult and emotionally charged role with ease and wraps her heart around it with the utmost compassion. But all the flattering words in the world could not do justice to this brilliant portrayal. At the risk of undermining my point by "gushing," I will halt the superlatives and just suggest ... request ...demand that you witness this remarkable actress' latest starring turn. [Read Harper's interview with Kim Huber]
Playing opposite Ms. Huber is another golden talent, Titanic's Brian d'Arcy James. As Anatoly, Brian flexes a gorgeous, commanding vocal instrument, one that many a leading man would surely kill for. Not only can the man sing, but he also gives a wonderful performance as the Russian, torn between his country and the woman he loves. Sean McDermott plays the missing link to our love triangle, Freddie. While McDermott gives a fine performance, I could not help thinking that there is something missing in the overall development of this character. For example, the inklings of a tortured adolescent life are touched upon in one single song, which leaves much to the imagination. Freddie seems to subconsciously view Florence as the loving female figure that he did not have as a child (which makes her emotional separation all the more painful), but this idea is not developed to any real substance. Consequently, Freddie's pervasively snotty attitude is never explained, leaving him as a plainly unsympathetic character.
The book is often pointed out as Chess fatal flaw, a point which I will not contend with; but, while it clearly could be seen as uneven and underdeveloped (such as with Freddie), Bell's slick staging compensates for much of the shaky dialogue. Not only that, but the classic rock score, courtesy of Rice, Andersson, and Ulvaeus, keeps the show going at a lively pace. Most notably, the sweetly ironic duet "I Know Him So Well" is given a simply sublime rendition by Ms. Huber and Rebekah Baty, who plays Anatoly's forsaken Russian mate Svetlana.
The Alliance has always had a wonderful reputation in its technical department, and this production is no exception. Grey chess emblems, ironically reminiscent of the Nazi propaganda of the Third Reich, emphasize the political turmoil building on either side of the game. Also, the seemingly simplistic chess board floor comes to life and is used to great metaphorical effect.
Chess plays through September 26 at the Alliance Theatre. Kim Huber continues through September 16, at which time she will be replaced by Lauren Kennedy (Sunset Blvd). Contact www.alliancetheatre.org for more information.
The Alliance Theatre Company, Kenny Leon, Artistic Director, Gus Stuhlreyer, Managing Director, presents Chess. Music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus. Idea and lyrics by Tim Rice. Book by Richard Nelson. Directed and choreographed by David H. Bell. Music Direction by M. Michael Fauss. Set Design by Dex Edwards. Costume Design by Susan Mickey. Lighting Design by Diane Ferry Williams. Sound Design by Brian Kettler. Production Stage Management by Pat A. Flora. Casting by Jody Feldman and Harriet Bass. Dramaturgy by Meghan Shultz. Special Thanks to Keith J. Degi. Sponsored by Nortel Networks.
Original Broadway production presented by The Shubert Organization, 3 Knights Ltd., and Robert Fox Ltd. Broadway production directed by Trevor Nunn.