Nan Knighton and Frank Wildhorn’s mechanically manufactured “The Scarlet Pimpernel” is hardly a first-class musical, but the producers of the national touring version have given it a first-class physical production. Jane Greenwood’s lavish, over-the-top costumes and Andrew Jackness’ sets — from flickering Comedie Francaise footlights and false proscenium to an elevating platform and a trio of ballroom chandeliers — glow with a newly minted band-box freshness that presents the musical in the best possible light. If a few problems are fixed it’s quite likely that this touring production will be a success on the road.
The trio of problems are a less than ideal leading lady, an overlong first act and a muddled ending. Fortunately the production has two strong assets in its leading men, Douglas Sills and William Paul Michals. Sills is repeating his Tony-nominated turn from the Broadway production in this slightly reworked version of the final “Pimpernel” seen in New York. He still has sufficient panache and matinee-idol looks to overcome a slight physical heaviness. Newcomer Michals as Chauvelin is all dark-voiced, dark-browed villainous glamour in a portrayal of welcome stature.
The rest of the cast works with commendable vigor and skill, with the unfortunate exception of Amy Bodnar as Marguerite. Director-choreographer Robert Longbottom must take some of the blame for her charmless, out-of-depth performance, as should musical director and conductor Andrew Wilder, who allows her to shriek her songs. (A solution could be easily implemented: Elizabeth Ward Land, a veteran of the Broadway company who is playing Marie at the moment with considerable warmth and feeling, is one of the two Marguerite understudies.)
This production was assembled, rehearsed and teched at New Haven’s Shubert Theater prior to its opening there. Longbottom, who re-directed and re-choreographed the musical for the last two of its three Broadway manifestations, did so again here, though his contributions are anything but inspired. Wilder conducted his buoyant pit band at the opening with considerable skill through Kim Scharnberg’s period-flavored orchestrations of Wildhorn’s generic music. The company’s singing was particularly fine in the musical’s choral moments.
In their musicalization of Baroness Orczy’s bestseller, Knighton and Wildhorn have clearly opted for comedy more than adventure or drama. The audience’s favorite number, justly so, was “The Creation of Man,” in which Sir Percy and his cohorts masquerade as flouncing exquisites to deflect suspicion that any of them could possibly be the Scarlet Pimpernel. The performers cleverly walk the fine line between flamboyant heterosexuality and blatant camp. Would that the musical as a wholeprovided such sustained enjoyment.
Sills, far from incidentally, is contracted for only the first four months of the tour, through the end of its run in Los Angeles on June 18.