`Scarlet Pimpernel' not black and white

Review: The musical lacks a good score and lyrics, yet the acting has its moments.

July 10, 2000|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

There's nothing wrong with "The Scarlet Pimpernel" that a good score wouldn't cure.

Instead, your ears will be bruised by music that is alternately treacly and bombastic. All the martial music at the Kennedy Center Opera House nearly drowns out the simplistic lyrics, which may not be such a bad thing.

Having dealt with a warring personality in "Jekyll & Hyde" and a warring country in "The Civil War," composer Frank Wildhorn takes on the bloody politics of France in the 1790s.

Based on the 1905 historical novel by Baroness Orczy, Nan Knighton's lyrics and book focus so tightly on the central love triangle involving an English aristocrat, the French actress he marries, and the vile French politician who comes between them, that what is gained in concentrated action is lost in terms of the bigger picture. There's little sense of what was going on in France, other than crowds milling around the guillotine and Robespierre scowling as he sends people to their deaths.

Of course, a book could probably be written about all the changes made in this musical's book. Following its poorly received Broadway debut in 1997, major revisions were made, and the play was reportedly improved.

Certainly, the three lead characters come across clearly. The title character uses that Scarlet Pimpernel name and a corresponding disguise when he sets about ruining Robespierre's plans. His real name, Percy, places him as an English aristocrat who seemingly loves donning disguises as much as he loves saving French aristocrats from the revolutionary government.

Robert Patteri has the requisite good looks and dashing behavior to make Percy a worthy romantic hero. Patteri brings enough lyrical tenderness to his solo numbers to nearly redeem them, but where the actor shines is in the comic scenes. When Percy and some of his aristocratic pals concoct a scheme to exaggerate their dandy mannerisms as part of a plot against their French foes, Patteri exercises sharp timing as he struts about in foppish outfits.

Not faring quite as well is Amy Bodnar as the French actress, Marguerite, who becomes Percy's wife. As a Parisian who takes up residence in England, Marguerite is a late 18th century example of multiculturalism. However, Bodnar's accent is all over the map, and it's sometimes difficult to know which country it has touched down in. This doesn't help her singing, although she has some lovely moments in her solo, "When I Look at You," and her duet with Percy, "You Are My Home."

The third wheel, Chauvelin, is a hiss-deserving guy who blackmails Marguerite, his former lover, into spying for the French government; contrives to foil the lively Percy; and otherwise fills his days with enough nasty activities to qualify him as a villainous overachiever. As the dressed-in-black Chauvelin, William Paul Michals hits the obvious campy bad-guy buttons. His performance verges on being cartoonish, and this robs the show of whatever pathos we should feel for Chauvelin as a spurned lover who somewhere in his cold heart still has a warm spot for Marguerite.

Director and choreographer Robert Longbottom similarly opts for broad gestures in moving the large cast around the stage. He gets laughs by choreographing soldiers as if they were toys, but such moves make it hard to take the melodrama seriously. Hearts have been broken, heads have been decapitated, and there's probably many a dry eye in the place.

`The Scarlet Pimpernel'

Where: Kennedy Center Opera House

When: Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., through July 30

Tickets: $15- $79

Call: 800-444-1324

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