Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Set right after the start of the French Revolution during the "Reign of Terror" in 1700s France, the musical, like the original play and novel by Orczy, follows an English nobleman, Percy Blakeney, who leads a double life. While he appears to almost everyone as a foppish aristocrat whose main concern is wearing the finest clothing, unbeknownst to even his French wife Marguerite he is also "the Scarlet Pimpernel." Like Robin Hood and his merry men, the Pimpernel and his gang of other secretive Englishmen wear disguises and seek to do justiceby rescuing victims in France before they face the guillotine. That Percy believes his wife might just be a French spy in cahoots with her former lover, the high-ranking French officer Chauvelin, only adds to the intrigue and plot twists of the show.
The musical has music by Frank Wildhorn and a book and lyrics by Nan Knighton. Both of the writers provide plenty of romance, comedy and excitement, though the show does rely a bit too much on power ballads that almost threaten to get in the way of its fun, fast and upbeat nature. While the plot of the musical is both humorous and intriguing, the story behind the making of the musical is just as fascinating. When it first premiered on Broadway in 1997 it was a bit of a disappointment, with plodding scenes, a structure that wasn't clear, and an ending that wasn't that exciting. But instead of posting a closing notice, the creators, with new producers, got to work. In 1998, they cut, added, and moved songs and scenes around, came up with a whole new beginning that better introduced the characters, and even added in a much more successful and crowd-pleasing ending. This updated version was a vastly improved show. Slight tweaks were further made to later versions. I saw both the original and 1998 revised versions on Broadway and was very impressed with the improvements the creative team made and how successful the show became. If Wildhorn and Knighton hadn't found a way to fix the show it's likely it wouldn't have resulted in the regional productions it has received since then, including this splendid production at Hale.
Austin Delp, Rochelle Barton, and Bryan Stewart form the formidable trio of Percy, Marguerite and Chauvelin, and they are all excellent, delivering touching, engaging, and extremely likable performances. While it took me a few moments to warm up to Delp, mainly due to his very stiff and bland portrayal at first of this stiff and bland Englishman, once he dons the guise of the Pimpernel, and plays up the foppish persona that Percy uses to throw anyone off his scent, he delivers a truly winning, hilarious, and charismatic performance. He effectively portrays both the charming and comical sides of the character while allowing us to see that Percy has a quite adventurous side as well. We also see from Delp's fine performance that underneath Percy's prancing façade is a most caring, intelligent and loving man. He also has a blast with the abundant amount of humor the part allows and his singing voice does quite well with the wide range of musical styles in the show.
As Marguerite, Rochelle Barton delivers a rich, nuanced performance of a woman who isn't quite sure why the man she married has changed so much. Barton also makes us care for this character even though the book adds an element of mystery into the role, including the fact that the audience, just like Percy, isn't quite sure if Marguerite is a French spy or not. Barton also sings like an angel, with every one of her solos and vocal contributions exceptional. Bryan Stewart is commanding, strong and menacing as the determined Chauvelin. His deep, gravelly voice combined with his instilling the part with an obsessive nature work well to deliver an engaging performance of this man who is infatuated both with catching the Pimpernel and reclaiming Marguerite for his own. Stewart's soaring voice works well on his solos, though at the performance I attended he struggled a bit on some of the sustained high notes in the rangier power ballads.
As Percy's closest friends who become the Pimpernel's gang, Nathan Spector, Cameron Rollins, Hunter Cuison, Avery Jones, Danny Karapetian, and Benjamin Harris are all having a blast. They create unique enough characters to make them distinguishable from each other and all achieve performances full of humor and heart. Sam Cottle is sweet and sincere as Marguerite's brother whom Percy befriends; Matthew Harris is both comical and commanding in two vastly different roles, the Prince of Wales and the evil Robespierre; and Kathleen Richards is distinguished as a French female friend of Marguerite who factors into the Pimpernel's exploits.
Director Cambrian James delivers another winning production. His choreography is full of style and period-perfect steps, danced exceptionally well by the cast who also deliver performances that perfectly balance the comedy, adventure and romance in the show. James stages the proceedings effectively, well with fast-paced scene changes even though set designer Brian Daily's somewhat lavish designs take up a lot of stage space in one of the more grand designs I've seen in a Hale production. Daily's scenery and James' staging swiftly and smartly transform the in-the-round space into an abundance of settings, including the ship on which Percy and his men sail to France, a guillotine and platform in a French city square, and a garden in Percy's home. Dani Everts' costumes, which are a non-stop parade of deep colors, varied materials, and lavish embellishments, are simply stunning, with the addition of James' hair and makeup designs highly effective. Tim Dietlein's lush and ever-changing lighting design delivers some nice stage images, and musical director Lincoln Wright achieves some lovely sounds from the cast.
The Scarlet Pimpernel is a rousing musical comedy adventure that's infused with humor, intrigue and romance. Hale Centre Theatre's production has a winning cast, with an engaging performance from Austin Delp, impeccable creative aspects, and sure-footed direction and choreography, resulting in a rousing, winning, comically rich, crowd-pleasing good time.
The Scarlet Pimpernel, through October 6, 2018, at The Hale Centre Theatre, 50 W. Page Avenue, Gilbert AZ. Tickets can be ordered at www.haletheatrearizona.com or by calling 480-497-1181
Directed and Choreographed by Cambrian James