Pop Goes the Pimpernel

Playhouse Square's singing and dancing swashbuckler makes for charismatic kitsch.

The Scarlet Pimpernel: Fantastic imagery set - to fantastically insipid songs.
The Scarlet Pimpernel: Fantastic imagery set to fantastically insipid songs.
Composer Frank Wildhorn's The Scarlet Pimpernel is camping in more ways than one at the Palace. This mega-musical demonstrates that, in today's commercial theater, if a show is rife with swish and swashbuckle, pumps up the emotions to the same fever pitch as the amplification, and has trimmings just this side of Radio City Music Hall, it will leave hyperventilating audiences on the edge of a swoon. Such is their bliss, they have no idea they have just experienced two and a half hours of the most meretricious pop since Tom Jones first bared his chest to the multitude.

The creators have imposed on this 18th-century adventure story a musical style that will bring a twinge of recognition to anyone who spent the '70s at the Front Row in Highland Heights, imbibing whiskey sours while Engelbert Humperdinck wailed soft-rock odes to blighted love. While the stage twirled and the vibrato excesses pierced the air, audiences would drip salty tears into their lime-green poly-cotton blends.

Like those emotional extravaganzas, The Scarlet Pimpernel is effective because of its trashy verve. The songs are rendered with such golden-voiced fervor that, with a couple of stiff drinks, one could almost forget that they are pure drivel.

The cruel irony is that the woman responsible for the show's very existence receives the barest mention under the title (and no biography in the program). Mrs. Montagu Barstow (1865-1947), whose pen name was Baroness Orczy, created the eponymous hero for a 1905 stage production. Sir Percy Blakeney is a nobleman who masquerades as a vainglorious fop while surreptitiously, with his gang, snatching doomed French aristocrats from the guillotine. The character immediately penetrated the public consciousness in the manner of Dumas's Count of Monte Cristo and Stevenson's Long John Silver. The author, a cheerful capitalist with a solid-gold pen, noted that her play turned sophisticated adults into yearning adolescents who craved her nobleman's next intrigue like children waiting for their allowance. The pseudo-baroness cheerfully obliged her public with a rip-roaring novelization of the play and eight sequels, ranging from The Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel to Sir Percy Leads the Band.

The first novel was filmed seven times, including a 1935 classic with Leslie Howard in his pre-Ashley Wilkes days. Orczy hit on a story as universal as Superman, a testimony to the redemptive powers of a noble soul. The work is filigree pulp that can bear up under many recyclings. During World War II, Howard smoothly converted it into Pimpernel Smith, an efficient bit of anti-Nazi propaganda.

Ten years ago, Wendy Wasserstein, in her comedy The Sisters Rosensweig, had a running joke about an artsy director perpetrating a monstrous pop opera out of Pimpernel. Intended as a swipe at the grotesqueries of a Phantom of the Opera-infested theater world, this fictional aberration turned out to be a perfect blueprint for Wildhorn and lyricist/bookwriter Nan Knighton, writers unafraid to embrace kitsch.

The show opened on Broadway to half-empty houses; within weeks, audiences could buy two-for-one tickets. Just as it was about to close, Radio City Entertainment took over as producers and ordered a series of rewrites. Wildhorn's loyal disciples refused to let it expire to an early grave.

After endless tinkering, the musical is a testament to what efficiency, wealth, and everything but inspiration can accomplish. In this souped-up tour, fancy sets and costumes bring the novel elegantly to life.

Director/choreographer Robert Longbottom takes a riding crop to the cast's fannies, making them ascend to a pink cloud of absurd heights. There isn't a nostril left unflared or a sigh or grimace that isn't punctuated with an exclamation mark.

Ron Bohmer's masquerade hero manages to strike a precarious balance between dashing leading man and Frenchified Liberace. Leading a droll production number rhapsodizing the joys of feyness, he unleashes a bonhomie that should land him a spot on Will & Grace. As the de rigueur firebrand villain Chauvelin, William Michals furls his brow and supplies a dosage of testosterone that gives the evening genuine pizzazz.

Here is a musical opiate that manages to insidiously hypnotize all but the most hard-bitten cynics; yet, be warned, those so entranced won't respect themselves in the morning.

Cesear's Forum offers a nourishing alternative to marzipan swashbuckling with two rarely performed melancholy one-acts by James Prideaux. Laughter in the Shadow of the Trees captures the last fleeting moments of an ancient marriage with excruciating honesty. A tenacious wife is determined not to relinquish her once-brilliant critic husband to an Alzheimer's hospital. She fights for one last moment of recognition, while he confuses the AIDS epidemic with the medieval black plague. As the degenerating couple, Glenn and Jean Colerider give authentically homespun performances. Playing their despairing daughter, Molly McGinnis manages to be both heartbreaking and radiant. Don Bianchi directs with grace and humanity. On the same bill is Abraham Lincoln Dies at Versailles, a strange tale of Lincoln's teenage grandson connecting to his famous relative by a chance encounter with a poetic stranger. Greg Cesear directs with a disconcerting nervous energy, and Sheila E. Maloney recalls the frazzled winsomeness of a Geraldine Page. One-acts are rarely performed outside of college campuses; here is a revitalizing change of pace.