Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

The Scarlet Pimpernel

The Kennedy Center is currently presenting the national tour of The Scarlet Pimpernel, the musical based on the 1905 novel of the same name by Baroness Orczy. Frank Wildhorn (music) and Nan Knighton (book and lyrics) have created a good-natured romp of musical that will likely keep you smiling long after you leave the theater. The show itself has traveled an unusual path up to this point, offering no fewer than four different incarnations over the past 3 3/4 years: first opening on Broadway in November of 1997 (version 1); then reopening in November of 1998 after undergoing substantial changes by new director Robert Longbottom (version 2); next resuming its Broadway run in a scaled-down version and in a new theater in September of 1999, after a brief regional tour (version 3); and finally launching this current national tour in February of 2000, one month after the Broadway show closed (version 4). This unique history has culminated in a focused production that offers something for everyone -- lush music, romance, betrayal, secret identities, dazzling costumes, intense sword fighting, and a large dose of humor.

The Scarlet Pimpernel tells the story of an English aristocrat, Sir Percival Blakeney (Robert Patteri), who adopts a secret identity -- that of the Scarlet Pimpernel -- in order to embark on a personal crusade to save innocent French citizens from slaughter at the guillotine. In order to deflect attention from themselves, Percy and his group of friends who join in his cause alter and exaggerate their behavior to create the impression that they are nothing more than "fops" -- men who haven't a care in the world more significant than the latest fashion, and for whom the idea of rushing into battle would be completely absurd. Percy's nemesis is Chauvelin (William Paul Michals), an agent of the French Republic, who has made it his mission to uncover the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel. To further complicate matters in this melodrama, both men are in love with Percy's new bride, the French actress Marguerite St. Just (Amy Bodnar), creating the classic romantic triangle.

The show is replete with wonderful performances. Robert Patteri easily slips back and forth between Percy's two personas: the hero who longs to reach out to his wife and the fop for whom the most pressing question each day is which cravat to don. Mr. Patteri has superb comic timing and a great stage presence. You cannot help but be drawn to his Percy, both when he is acting the part of a fool and when he is dashing and heroic. While Mr. Patteri's inane fop persona is nearly 180 degrees from Percy's true character, Mr. Patteri subtly allows the audience to catch glimpses of both the torturous pain and the unwavering strength which underlie the humor of the fop. Mr. Patteri possesses a powerful, expressive voice, and in songs such as "Prayer," Percy reveals his devastation over what he perceives to be his wife's betrayal and his resolve to go on with his life and his mission in spite of that betrayal.

William Paul Michals is a sinister but seductive Chauvelin who is driven to madness by his inability to capture the Scarlet Pimpernel. Mr. Michals possesses an incredibly rich voice which he employs to stunning effect. "Where's the Girl," the song in which a smoldering Chauvelin attempts to convince Marguerite to return with him to France, leaves Marguerite (and the audience) momentarily breathless, thinking "Percy who?" Mr. Michals also delivers a compelling portrayal of Chauvelin's descent into madness, as the character reaches an almost manic pitch as the story draws to a close.

Amy Bodnar portrays a spirited Marguerite and sings the part beautifully. In some respects, Marguerite appears to be a more challenging character to play effectively than either Percy or Chauvelin because she has fewer opportunities to express her inner motivations and thoughts. Ms. Bodnar, however, does an excellent job of conveying Marguerite's emotions, particularly through Marguerite's songs. Marguerite's disillusionment and heartbreak are tangible as she faces a future with the unrecognizable man her husband appears to have become in "When I Look at You." Ms. Bodnar's presentation of "I'll Forget You," an achingly lovely song, also evokes the sorrow and regret Marguerite feels as she awaits her uncertain future and reflects upon her love for her husband.

The "League" of the Scarlet Pimpernel are unlikely heroes, but they quickly become enthusiastic and loyal confederates. Some of the most amusing moments in the show occur between Percy and his men, particularly during the "Creation of Man" scene as the men strut about in pastel animal print attire in preparation for their visit to the Palace to meet with the Prince of Wales (David Cromwell) and convince him of the impossibility of their involvement with the Scarlet Pimpernel. Mr. Cromwell is marvelously funny, though painfully underutilized, as the Prince of Wales, appearing in only a few scenes. (Mr. Cromwell also plays Robespierre, Chauvelin's superior in the new French government.)

Jane Greenwood's costumes, particularly the animal prints mentioned above and the costumes for the second-act royal ball, almost qualify as characters themselves. The animal prints are completely over-the-top and provide the appropriate atmosphere for that high-spirited scene. Similarly, the glittering ball costumes are striking and reflect the opulence of the English aristocracy.

Ultimately, if you are seeking a 'serious dramatic piece,' you will not find it with The Scarlet Pimpernel. However, if you are looking for an entertaining and unforgettable evening at the theater with a show that never takes either itself or its audience too seriously, you will surely not be disappointed by The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Radio City Entertainment and Ted Forstmann present The Scarlet Pimpernel. Music by Frank Wildhorn. Book and Lyrics by Nan Knighton. Based on the novel "The Scarlet Pimpernel" by Baroness Orczy. Directed and Choreographed by Robert Longbottom. With Robert Patteri, Amy Bodnar, William Paul Michals, John Paul Almon, D.B. Bonds, Vincent Paul Boyle, Russell Joel Brown, Michael Bunce, Erin Coakley, David Cromwell, Harvey Evans, Matthew Farver, Ashlee Fife, Russell Garrett, Angela Garrison, Drew Geraci, Stephen Hope, Rebekah Jacobs, Aaron Paul, Christeena Michelle Riggs, Marisa Rozek, Billy Sharpe, Kathleen Shields, Stephonne Smith, Edward Staudenmayer, Chloe Stewart, Michael Susko, James Van Treuren, and Jennifer Zimmerman. Scenery by Andrew Jackness. Costumes by Jane Greenwood. Lighting by Natasha Katz. Sound by Karl Richardson. Hair Design by Paul Huntley. Production Stage Manager: Harold Goldfaden. Special Effects by Jim Steinmeyer. Orchestrations: Kim Sharnberg. Musical Supervision: Jason Howland. Vocal Arrangements: Ron Melrose. Music Coordinator: John Miller. Dance Arrangements: David Chase. Musical Director: Andrew Wilder. Fight Director: Rick Sordelet.

Through July 30, 2000 at The Kennedy Center. Call the Box Office at (202) 467-4600 or visit

Photo By: Joan Marcus

-- Michelle Butler

Also see the 1999-2000 Theatre Season Calendar for D.C.