“The Scarlet Pimpernel” is musical theater cordon bleu: On the outside, there’s a thin layer of adventure and romance, but the truly dominant ingredients are ham and cheese. The cheese, of a domestic variety, comes from composer Frank Wildhorn (“Jekyll & Hyde”) and writer Nan Knighton, who take Baroness Orczy’s tale of a secret swashbuckler and whip up a crowdpleasing frolic, heavy on the camp. Star Douglas Sills provides the ham, and there’s plenty to go around. Lacking the subtle flavors of a gourmet feast, the show keeps the courses coming long after audiences are satiated. Still, crowds will enjoy gorging themselves on the colorful buffet.
Early on in “Scarlet Pimpernel,” set amid the bloodshed of the French Revolution, the audience is treated to its first guillotine beheading, which evokes a giggle. The cleverly staged spectacle enables director Robert Longbottom to establish the tone of the show from the get-go — the stakes here are life and death, but don’t take it too seriously. Our hero is Sir Percy Blakeney (Sills), well-dressed aristocrat, who marries the stunning French singer Marguerite (Amy Bodnar), but then soon believes she has betrayed him horribly by giving away his friend’s hiding place to the blood-thirsty Chauvelin (William Paul Michals).
Feeling himself a fool and stricken with a sense of conscience — “This is a war against humanity!” he cries — Percy inspires his aristocratic pals to engage in a series of Parisian rescue efforts. To avoid suspicion, they will pretend to be an exaggerated version of exactly what they are, pampered Brits, “la creme de la creme of fancy fops.” In the best number of the show, the group sings the musical’s signature tune, the highly hummable “Into the Fire,” and they set sail for France in a set change that garners applause.
While the movie versions placed primary focus on the adventurous deeds of the Pimpernel and his league, Knighton and Wildhorn find most of their fun in the comic escapades of keeping Percy’s heroic identity a secret.
Sills has a blast playing the “nincompoop,” obsessed with fashion above all, swooning at the slightest mention of a daring escapade. The show reaches a campy crescendo when Percy leads his group to the Prince’s Ball dressed in a pastel giraffe-skin outfit. Sills’ over-the-top performance, and Jane Greenwood’s outlandishly ridiculous costumes are enjoyably shameless, holding absolutely nothing back.
As Marguerite, Bodnar is extremely impressive vocally and, while her acting doesn’t quite match her voice, she becomes a highly sympathetic figure (she of course never intended to cause trouble for Percy’s friend).
Unfortunately, when the romantic sparks are supposed to fly between the two leads, they aren’t really there; due in part, perhaps, to Sills’ overdoing the comedy at the expense of other aspects of the character. And the moments of recognition, when the Scarlet Pimpernel’s identity is revealed, are disappointingly anticlimactic.
Marguerite once had an affair with Chauvelin, and this plot point is certainly believable — the scenes between Bodnar and Michals are easily the most emotionally affecting. Michals is wonderfully sinister and he delivers a passionate performance, really the best of the evening, playing Chauvelin as more than just a cardboard villain.
All the voices are exceptional, and make the most of what is a pleasing, lush, but forgettable score, which is hurt by the fact that the orchestra sounds severely thin.
Andrew Jackness’ old-fashioned painted backdrops, the principal elements of his fluid, lovely set design, give “Scarlet Pimpernel” a nicely nostalgic feel. The production, reduced in scale from the Broadway version, at times seems hemmed in, especially in the final scene where the Ahmanson’s lack of a center aisle hampers the ultimate plot twist.
But by that point, it doesn’t really matter. After so many portions of ham and cheese, the audience isn’t crying out for dessert.