As you might expect, The Scarlet Pimpernel" is full of mystery and suspense. The mystery is that a sophisticated culture should lavish so many resources on such nonsense.
The suspense lies in the close run contest between the fatuous nature of the show and the great skills of its star.
Nobody goes to a musical for a history lesson. But successful musicals on historical subjects "Evita," "1776," "Les Miserables" do have some real relationship to great events. Even if they distort the past, they still draw on it.
"The Scarlet Pimpernel," though, has as much to do with the French Revolution's reign of terror as Pocahontas Barbie has to do with the conquest of the Indians. At times, even when it would be easier to be accurate, it seems to have its heart set on a parade of ignorance.
The revolutionary Robespierre, for instance, was famously severe. Why trick him out in a golden coat and periwig?
Because, presumably, the show's sense of time and place is limited to the hilariously bad novel on which it is based.
Baroness Orczy's 1905 exercise in reactionary chic may have worked well enough as an action movie. But even the fluffiest stage show needs to be more than a camped-up version of an already campy burlesque of history.
Taking the story on its own terms, though, it ought to be at least a good yarn. The Pimpernel is an English aristocrat who dashingly rescues victims of The Terror from the guillotine. The tension comes from his romantic dilemma. He has married a French actress who he now suspects of complicity with the revolutionaries. In order to protect his identity, he must pretend to be an idiotic wimp, thus earning his beloved's contempt.
The most extraordinary thing about Nan Knighton's book, however, is that it fails to establish this simple contrast. We see the manly Pimpernel inspiring his happy band with stirring speeches. We see the foppish Sir Percy (the Pimpernel in his other life) camping it up at court. But, until the last 10 minutes, we never see him in action.
What most people will come for our hero saving the innocents is withheld for so long that it can't fulfill its most basic dramatic function.
Likewise, you might expect some playful satire to be extracted from a contemporary take on the story's contrast between virile real men and limp-wristed ninnies. Since the whole point is that these two types are actually the same people, there is ample opportunity for subversive wit.
Now and then, as in the clever number "The Creation of Man" near the end of the first act, the opportunity is seized, and the show rises. But such moments are far too rare.
For the most part, director Peter Hunt seems unable to decide whether he wants to send the story up or play it straight. Without a clear sense of purpose, he sometimes settles for mere pageantry.
This is a pity, for the show has strengths that almost overcome even these problems.
Frank Wildhorn's score is always pleasant and, at times in ballads like "Believe" and "When I Look At You" lovely.
Rick Sordelet's fight direction manages to be funny and spectacular at the sa me time.
Terrence Mann's acting and singing as the evil Chauvelin are always impressive (though Christine Andreas in the female lead is less so).
Above all, Douglas Sills' Broadway debut in the title role offers a rare opportunity to witness the birth of a star. He has it all a commanding presence, prodigious energy, a delightfully light touch. He sings with skill and passion, acts with grace and intelligence and what defines a musical star he can do both at the same time.
His talent is so impressive that you begin to indulge the fantasy that he could have written the book and the directed the show as well.
Alas, even in over-the-top romantic fiction, our fantasies seldom come true.
They seek him here, but they can't find "The Scarlet Pimpernel" at the Minskoff Theater, where it played in two previous incarnations.
They seek him there, but the Pimp isn't in Dallas, Houston or Atlanta, where version 3, the new and streamlined one, played this summer.
Those Pimpies seek him everywhere. Is he on Broadway or is he in debt? That damned, elusive Pimpernel!
Aha! He is on Broadway! He's moved to the Neil Simon. And he's gone on a diet.
This is a slimmer, sparer "Scarlet Pimpernel" - "Scar Pimp," as it were. The cast has been reduced from 41 to 29; the sets (except for a guillotine) are mainly flats; there are still some fancy costumes but, worn by groups of six or eight, they look lonely.
The production looks like the bus-and-truck company of a show that once played New York. Bringing this anorectic "Pimpernel" back to Broadway was a bizarre idea.
Especially because what made the previous "Scarlet Pimpernels" mildly enjoyable is almost all gone. The old shows had a taste of adventure, a feel of big, sprawling, lusty fun, the Errol Flynn spirit. Now, the vigorous, kinetic scene in which the League moves from an English drawing room by means of a ship to Paris and effects a daring rescue seems anemic.
And all the pretend foppery in "The Creation of Man" has been so toned down it doesn't make sense as a plot device. And so on.
What we're left with is a deeply uninteresting love triangle. This musical - with music by Frank Wildhorn and book and lyrics by Nan Knighton - attempts to replicate the good guy/bad guy/anguished gal in the middle formula so remorselessly exploited in Wildhorn's cult success "Jekyll & Hyde."
(In that show, of course, the good guy and the bad guy are one and the same, but one has bad hair.) But Wildhorn's amorous ballads are generic molasses, the Chinese food of pop music. Five minutes after hearing "You Are My Home" or "When I Look at You" or "I'll Forget You," you can't remember a word or a chord. He's the Kmart Andrew Lloyd Webber. This production has, to vary the food metaphor, taken away the steak and left the broccoli. Of the three central performers, Marc Kudisch, playing the villainous, black-clad Chauvelin, is the only one with any spark.
Scowling and scheming and love-wracked, Kudisch skillfully projects dark energy and emotion. He pockets the show, except it's not worth pocketing.
As Percy Blakeney/Pimpernel, Ron Bohmer comes across as bland, passionless, dull, almost avuncular. Marguerite, France's leading actress cruelly torn between hubby and heavy, is played by Carolee Carmello, who was so strong in the serious musical "Parade" last season.
Here she has to stand around in satin and wring her hands a lot. It's a waste of a fine performer.
I don't know about you, but I can't wait for next season's really minimalist "Scarlet Pimpernel." It'll be all puppets.
In the annals of weight loss on Broadway, ''The Scarlet Pimpernel'' stands out as a model dieter. Frank Wildhorn and Nan Knighton's retelling of Baroness Orczy's 1905 novel of derring-do and secret identity during the French Revolution was bloated, flabby and listless when it opened at the cavernous Minskoff Theater in 1997, a dinosaur blimp at a moment when even Lord Lloyd Webber was saying the overblown musical was dead.
Then, a year into the show's run, there occurred the sort of unlikely transformation found in Jenny Craig commercials. A new team of producers rushed in with the mission of whipping the sagging ''Pimpernel'' into shape, and under the direction of Robert Longbottom (who replaced Peter Hunt), the musical was rewritten, restaged and significantly recast, giving it discipline, focus and a newly streamlined shape. It was a makeover that even Cher, the queen of self-reinvention, might envy.
Contrary to the ruling wisdom on Park Avenue, however, it really is possible to be too thin. After a summer hiatus from New York, ''The Scarlet Pimpernel'' has resurfaced in an even trimmer incarnation: in a smaller theater (the Neil Simon, which has 400 fewer seats than the Minskoff) with a shallower stage, matched by a smaller cast (29 instead of 41) and reduced scenery.
The result is a production with a bus-and-truck feeling that, while still stronger than its original incarnation, is definitely weaker than its second. With a new trio of stars enacting the work's central love triangle in scaled-down performances in a more intimate setting, this latest ''Pimpernel'' asks to be accepted without the camouflage of spectacle. The show's bones are now clearly visible, and -- let's face it -- bone structure was never its strong suit.
Ms. Knighton's Harlequin Romance-style book and lyrics remain essentially as they were in the reworked version of a year ago, while the score by Mr. Wildhorn (''Jekyll and Hyde,'' ''The Civil War'') is the same old bottle of pop, all carbonated fizz and syrup. Everything else, from Kim Scharnberg's orchestrations to the interpretations of its leading characters, feels gentler this time around, less oversold. Andrew Jackness's revised sets now ask the audience to fill in the blanks with its imagination, so that the catacomb-like prison that once stretched across the stage is now represented by a barred box beneath a guillotine.
Normally, such an approach, so scintillatingly represented by the current revival of ''Chicago,'' is to be encouraged. But ''Pimpernel,'' which purports to recreate the swashbuckling vigor of old Warner Brothers costume movies, needs to be loud and flashy if it is going to work at all.
Certainly, its plot, jokes and lyrics are easier to grasp now. Its leading characterizations, especially from Ron Bohmer and Carolee Carmello as the English fop with a heroic alter ego and his plucky French wife, approach psychological realism in ways they didn't before, and there is a new respectfulness in both the playing and the singing of Mr. Wildhorn's songs.
For once, however, enhanced clarity is not a virtue. The romantic friction among Percy, a k a the Scarlet Pimpernel (Mr. Bohmer), his wife, Marguerite (Ms. Carmello), and her former lover, the blood-thirsty French official Chauvelin (Marc Kudisch), is meant to be rendered in exaggerated postures and declamations.
Outright braggadocio was what made the show's original Percy, Douglas Sills, so much fun. He had an exuberance verging on camp that paralleled the boy's-adventure-fantasy aspect, a sense that he was saying, with every gesture, ''Look, Mom! I'm starring in a musical on Broadway!'' Tall and handsome in the style of paperback cover boys, Mr. Sills also managed to wear Jane Greenwood's glittery costumes without looking too much like Liberace.
The same cannot be said of Mr. Bohmer, a round-cheeked actor of greater emotional delicacy and less natural charisma. He has a charmingly quiet spark of glee in his eyes and a shimmery, sincere voice. But he does ask you to take him seriously, which no Pimpernel, especially one dressed like this, can afford to do.
Ms. Carmello, a first-rate interpreter of the new school of cerebral musicals (''Hello Again,'' ''Parade''), gives her heart and soul to every song she sings. In the case of the cartoonishly Gallic Marguerite, however, all that's required is her vanity. Mr. Kudisch, a stalwartly handsome man with a forbidding forehead, plays Chauvelin with committed, as opposed to winking, melodrama.
Though all three principals are in excellent voice, they bring a taming quality of domesticity to the evening. A few ensemble numbers, especially those involving the chorus of English aristocrats making like peacocks, register with an invigorated wit. But over all, the production has shed its commanding sweep and energy.
I never thought I would miss that barnlike echo chamber called the Minskoff, but its vastness served ''Pimpernel'' better than the cozy Neil Simon does. Being bigger than life is what this show is about. When Mr. Sills, Rachel York and Rex Smith sang the concluding number of the first act, an earnest trio about deception and trust called ''The Riddle,'' they did so with an over-the-top fierceness that gave off real sparks and sent you grinning foolishly into the lobby.
Mr. Bohmer, Ms. Carmello and Mr. Kudisch deliver the same song with more gravity and finesse than their predecessors, and the effect is close to soporific. Certain shows not only do not deserve respect; they also suffer from it.
Seek him here, seek him there, just don't expect to really care. Nan Knighton and Frank Wildhorn's middlebrow "The Scarlet Pimpernel" is B-movie melodrama set to an Adult Contemporary format. Lacking the Gothic weight of Wildhorn's popular "Jekyll & Hyde," this "Les Miz" Lite could have a tough time getting sizable audiences to step up to the guillotine, but a pleasant enough score and fanciful period costumes should attract the Harlequin Romance crowd.
Director Peter Hunt, returning to the stage after a 20-year absence, paints "Scarlet" with strokes broad enough to coat the Champs d'Elysees, an approach well suited to, or at least well matched by, Nan Knighton's Classic Comics book.
This is a show in which the British aristocracy invariably end sentences with "eh, wot?," the actors who bother to use accents taking their cues from any number of Monty Python characters.
That said, the show passes by breezily enough, and if most of the rather obvious humor comes at the expense of limp-wristed fops (there's more mincing going on here than a week's worth of the Food Network), at least "Pimpernel" doesn't take itself too seriously. By the time Knighton's book thoroughly unravels late in the second act, even the director seems to have thrown up his hands and instructed everyone to just act silly.
Based (loosely) on the pulpy 1905 novel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy (among other things, the author's blatant anti-Semitism has been scrapped), "Pimpernel" is a swashbuckler about a British aristocrat named Percy (Douglas Sills) who, along with 10 other upper-crust gents, pretends to be a fop in order to infiltrate and derail the French Revolution. Staging diversions (loosing a gaggle of geese, or screaming "Plague! Plague!"), the Scarlet Pimpernel and his cohorts repeatedly interrupt the daily be-headings that bloody the streets of Paris. Act-Up, circa 1794.
The authors apparently know how nonsensical all this is, leaving all but one of the counter-revolutionary "incidents" to the imagination. Instead, the focus is on the triangle among Percy, his new French wife Marguerite (Christine Andreas), and ruthless French head-chopper Chauvelin (Terrence Mann). Percy learns early on that his bride is a spy for the terrorists, but he doesn't know she's being blackmailed by old flame Chauvelin. Faced with being exposed as a formerly "free" woman, what's a femme to do but turn in her friends?
Painted backdrops, a rickety guillotine and a phony-looking bookcase (for Percy's study) sap "Pimpernel" of the big-budget spectacle one might expect from a historical romance musical, and the large ensemble, whether playing English nobility or a French mob, tries to make amends by mugging and overacting. Virtually all the secondary characters are indistinguishable --- if you've seen one British twit or bloodthirsty Jacobin, you've seen 'em all.
As the sympathetic traitor Marguerite, Andreas offers little more than a stock Frenchwoman but sings with a lovely Piaf trill. Her French accent is a bit cartoonish, particularly opposite the very American-sounding actor who plays her brother Armand (Gilles Chiasson).
Mann has the most potentially interesting role, his villainous Chauvelin showing hints of a heart --- hints that go unexamined in favor of angry grimacing and an affected, singsong line delivery.
In his Broadway debut, Sills is practically made-to-order as the Pimpernel, with matinee-idol looks, a booming, melodramatic voice and a way with a shriek that puts Nathan Lane's "Birdcage" character to shame. Even so, Sills can do little to give any real humanity or heft to this outdated hero.
Certainly the actor isn't helped by a book that's not above snickering over sophomoric insinuations: "What sort of lover is your husband?" Chauvelin asks Marguerite as Percy prances away, the husband's sudden transformation into a lisping nellie oddly unremarkable to his friends. When faced with anything difficult to explain, book-writer Knighton simply looks the other way --- the Pimpernel's victory over the guillotine, for example, has to be seen to be believed, and in this musical it's neither.
Wildhorn's tunes, from the spirited ensemble number "Vivez!" and the Parisian saloon song "Storybook" to the numerous radio-ready MOR ballads, certainly aren't distinguished by artistic innovation, but neither are they hard on the ears. Unfortunately, Hunt shows little imagination in staging the big solos, with the second act in particular becoming a succession of stage-front belters.
The director's two attempts at theatrical gimmickry -- a bumpy stagecoach ride, a badly disguised impostor -- compete with "Side Show's" Tunnel of Love for Broadway's cheesiest effect. But where "Side Show" flashes its ambitions, the goofy "Pimpernel" all but blushes scarlet with sheepishness. That's one way of keeping your head in a crisis.