There's a fascinating thought at the center of the Clark Kent/Superman myth, that even the most bland-looking person could be harboring a dashing hero inside. That means the nose-picking, phantom-farting schlub sitting next to you might be able to save the world in a different guise.
Yeah, probably not. But still, it's fun to imagine, and that's why musicals such as The Scarlet Pimpernel, now offered by Mercury Summer Stock at the Cleveland Play House, have such allure. While this production displays many strengths — from some strong ensemble voices to imaginative staging — it's a spotty effort overall, sometimes lacking the tight cohesive quality that we've come to expect from this fine company of young actors.
Based on the adventure novel of the same name, this play revolves around Percy Blakeney, a foppish British nobleman married to the lovely French woman Marguerite. It's all set during the Reign of Terror in 18th century France, when Robespierre and his pals from the Revolution were working the guillotine harder than the corned beef slicer at Corky and Lenny's.
With blood running in Parisian streets, Percy learns that his wife betrayed a French friend who then promptly lost his head. So Percy decides to form a band of brothers from his upper-crust friends to cross the channel and help innocent people avoid the blade.
Under the leadership of the outwardly effete Percy, these fellows try to deflect suspicion by affecting a similar swish and a fondness for lace (explicated amusingly in "The Creation of Man," with lines such as: "Embroider those lapels/Be kind to the beasts in pastels!"). And Percy dubs himself the Scarlet Pimpernel, leaving the image of that small red flower at the scenes of his rescues.
Even though the music by Frank Wildhorn and the lyrics by Nan Knighton skew more to soft pop, there is enough tunefulness in the score to sustain the show. What is needed is a delicate balancing act of tone, so that the show's campy aspects add buzz to the storyline.
Unfortunately, this balance is not always in evidence in the first act. Percy's posse, although singing well as a group, never quite delineates the difference between being pampered noblemen and their sissy counterparts, so their flamboyant disguises are less amusing than they might be. And their forays to save souls at the Place de la Bastille, enacted in "The Rescue Ballet," is slapdash and confusing.
As Percy, the excellent actor Brian Marshall shows perfect timing in his comical scenes — particularly when interacting with Robespierre's evil lieutenant Chauvelin, who was a past lover of Marguerite. But when portraying the heroic Pimpernel, Marshall oddly shifts into neutral, his face goes pasty and soft, and he seems to be floating in limbo. This leaves a void at the center of the play that's hard to fill.
Marshall sings well when the songs are in his powerful mid-range, but the notes thin out at the higher and lower margins. The same is occasionally true of Jennifer Myor, who plays Marguerite. Her solo "When I Look At You" is effective, but she too often sings with her eyes closed, or almost so, not allowing the audience to share her character's emotions.
In the villain role of Chauvelin, Shane Patrick O'Neill strikes a lean and fearsome figure and sings his songs with contained fury. Still, his character would resonate more fully if he could react to a stronger chemistry between Percy and Marguerite. Lacking any significant sexual tension, we have to take the married couple's attraction to each other pretty much on faith.
Among the secondary characters, Ryan Bergeron as Percy's ally Elton almost snaps a couple bones in an intense effort to go limp-wristed, which can be alternately funny and tiresome. Jeffery Grover is wasted in two tiny roles, and Kate Leigh Michalski as Marguerite's pal Marie finds many of her lines swallowed up by unfortunate acoustics. As Marguerite's young brother Armand, Jonathan Ramos is appropriately enthusiastic and naive.
Director Pierre-Jacques Brault has designed a stripped-down look for this show, using the bare brick walls of the Brooks Theatre stage and simple wooden chairs for scenery. Keeping most of the cast onstage, Brault is able to pace the scenes quickly, which definitely helps.
Mercury Summer Stock is a ray of sunlight every summer in Cleveland. And even when they don't hit the bull's-eye, their productions have a spirit and freshness that's always worth a look.
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