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They Sailed "Into the Fire" and Came Out Winners!
by Nancy Rosati

On November 4, 1998, The Scarlet Pimpernel had its official re-opening, just 5 days shy from the one year anniversary of its first opening. For anyone who has followed the show, the fact that we are even discussing The Scarlet Pimpernel in November, 1998 is amazing in itself.

As reported in this column in July, SP was not expected to survive after the Tony Awards. Reviews were mixed at best, and the grosses just weren't there. But those audiences who ventured into the cavernous Minskoff Theater were on their feet at the end, so the producers refused to give up. Spurred on by a powerful fan base called The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, they sought investors and came up with Radio City Entertainment, a division of Cablevision Systems Corporation. In an unprecedented move, Cablevision stepped in and took over the reins of the show. They brought in Robert Longbottom, former director of Side Show and the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular, as the new director and choreographer.

They also cast new stars. Rex Smith, best known for his years as a rock star and as Frederick in The Pirates of Penzance, replaced Terrence Mann as the villain, Chauvelin. Rachel York, who had won raves for her performance as Norma in Victor/Victoria, took over for the departing Christine Andreas as Marguerite, the unsuspecting wife of our hero. Douglas Sills remained in the role of Percival Blakeney, a.k.a. The Scarlet Pimpernel, for which he received a Tony Nomination for Best Actor.

Frank Wildhorn and Nan Knighton continued as composer and lyricist, but no one could confuse the new SP with the old version. Rehearsals began in late August, with most cast members rehearsing the new version during the day and performing the old one at night. This continued until the emotional final performance of "SP Classic" on October 1st. In addition to the departing Terrence Mann and Christine Andreas, six other cast members gave their last performance that night, as did the script, Peter Hunt's direction, and Adam Pelty's choreography. Members of the League turned out in full force and frequently the show was halted for thunderous applause. Enough rumors of song cuts had been leaked that the audience knew full well which songs they were hearing for the last time. Also on their way to the guillotine were Douglas Sills' famous ad libs, so he managed to include his entire repertoire in that final evening, much to the delight of the partisan crowd.

SP shut down after October 1st for a full week of technical work. During that time a strange phenomenon occurred - commercials for The Scarlet Pimpernel actually appeared on TV! This was the first indication to the League that the new producers were really serious about saving the show. Before that, the cash-strapped production was not able to do any credible advertising and had relied very much on word-of-mouth to sell tickets.

On October 10th, previews for the new version began. It wasn't named Scarlet Pimpernel II, but it could have been. From the moment the curtain opened it was obvious that this was a completely new production with a new director. In response to criticisms that the story line was unclear, major changes were made to clarify Marguerite's character and show her relationship with Percy and Chauvelin. Although funny scenes still remained, there was much more of an attempt to move the story along. Major renovations continued during the preview period resulting in the elimination of some ensemble characters. The three lead roles were emphasized even more than before.

The results have given the producers a reason to be optimistic. It is true that die-hard Leaguers walked out after the performance on October 10th and said, "What have they done?" But, Leaguers are extremely loyal, so most of them went back, the next time with an open mind. After they got over the shock of not seeing the production they had come to know and love, they were able to watch it more objectively, and their opinions are now overwhelmingly positive. The new advertising campaign has brought sold out houses to the Minskoff, and many of these people have not seen the original version. The audiences seem to thoroughly enjoy it and jump to their feet at the end for a very enthusiastic standing ovation.

And what are they applauding? Rex Smith, for one. Stepping into the shoes of Terrence Mann is not an enviable position, but fortunately for Rex, the part has been altered somewhat, so direct comparisons are more difficult to make. It probably wouldn't matter, because Rex can certainly meet the challenge. His soaring voice seems perfectly matched to Wildhorn's pop style in a song like "Where's The Girl," but he is equally capable of tackling the very difficult "Falcon In the Dive" with strength and fervor. His Chauvelin is more sinister and, either by choice or direction, does not use many of the comic touches that Mann employed during his last few months. But, there is absolutely no doubt that he is still very much smitten with Percy's wife Marguerite.

Comparisons are also difficult to draw between Rachel York's Marguerite and Andreas'. A good deal of the script's renovation was directed towards her character. Where before she was less prominent in comparison to her male co-stars, she is now more of a "free woman" and able to hold her own with the guys. Rachel has a beautiful voice and is given a moment to shine with a newly added ballad, "I'll Forget You", resurrected from the concept CD. Marguerite even gets to come to the rescue when her beloved Percy is in trouble late in the story.

The real reason to see The Scarlet Pimpernel is the performance of Douglas Sills. It is hard to imagine that Cablevision would have even considered stepping in as a producer without a commitment from him. Throughout the history of musical theater, every now and then a role and an actor are so perfectly suited that they can never be separated in your mind. Examples of this are Yul Brynner in The King and I and Robert Preston in The Music Man. You can now add Douglas Sills in The Scarlet Pimpernel to that list. On stage almost 90% of the production, he plays at least 3 characters, sings magnificently in 11 songs, duels, dances, climbs a rope ladder, and has his head cut off. He can switch from hero to fop before your eyes, and make you laugh, cry, or whatever else he chooses. He manages to make all of this look effortless as if just anyone could do it. Although Nan Knighton did not meet Sills until after her original script was written, you almost had the feeling watching the old version that the part was tailor-made for him. Now, a good deal of his former ad-libs have been added to the script, and he has become so much a part of the production that he could almost be given co-writing credits. It is his presence on stage more than anything else that can make The Scarlet Pimpernel a success.

It remains to be seen how this "experiment" will result. Other shows have shut down for revisions but not to such an extent with new producers. This show has always needed a more appropriate ad campaign and it seems that they finally have it. Critics who hated the original have now found elements to cheer. Why shouldn't they? Many of the changes were in direct response to critical complaints. Cast members have spoken of the passionate way in which the new producers have embraced this project. With all of these ingredients, the future of The Scarlet Pimpernel seems bright indeed.

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