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.