Long before Bruce Wayne concocted a secret identity for himself in order to fight evil and wrongdoers as Batman, an 18th Century English baronet named Sir Percy Blakeney disguised himself as The Scarlet Pimpernel. His goal—to rescue French aristocrats from the blade of the dreaded guillotine.

Fans of classic fiction know the Scarlet Pimpernel as the hero of Baroness Emmuska Orczy’s 1905 novel of the same name. Movie buffs have probably seen the 1934 film which starred Leslie Howard as Sir Percy and Merle Oberon as his French actress wife Marguerite.  Musical theater aficionados know The Scarlet Pimpernel from its nearly 800 performances on Broadway in the late 1990s.

The Frank Wildhorn/Nan Knighton musical now gets an “in the round” staging at Glendale Centre Theatre, one which showcases Wildhorn’s soaring melodies and Knighton’s witty lyrics, and offers several local musical theater favorites some of their best roles yet.  This is a gorgeously sung (and costumed) production in which intimacy takes the place of lavish proscenium sets.  With voices like those of the three leads, and laughs and thrills galore, GCT’s production is certain to be an audience favorite.

Wildhorn’s music has its detractors, who call it “too commercial,” but I am not one of them. Give me a rousing anthem like “Into The Fire” or a romantic pop duet like “You Are My Home” or a power ballad like “I’ll Forget You” and I’ll be singing along in my head, cheering as the singer reaches the final notes, and humming the tune as I leave the theater (or write a review). It’s not all Top 40 however. Adult contemporary hits alternate with comic gems like “The Creation Of Man” (“Each species needs a sex that’s fated to be highly decorated. That is why the Lord created men.”) and “They Seek Him Here” (“He meddles with the Frenchie Revolution, popping in and out each week, spoiling every lovely execution. La, what cheek!”) 

GCT’s production stars Brent Schindele in the splashy starring role he richly deserves.  As Sir Percy / the Scarlet Pimpernel, Schindele gets to be romantic leading man, action hero, and scene-stealing comedian all in one performance.  It’s great fun to watch the very straight Schindele “fop it up” as Sir Percy assumes the persona of a “nincompoop” in order to divert attention from his heroic deeds.  The actor is clearly having a field day as he flits and flounces around the stage, long white lace hanky in hand, backed up by his half-dozen fellow dandies, each more extravagantly dressed and flamboyantly mannered than the next.   Schindele’s leading man pipes more than fill the bill in his renditions of “She Was There” and “You Are My Home.”

Returning to GTC from her memorable star turn in Phantom is Heather Lundstedt, once again filling the romantic leading lady role to perfection.  Several of Marguerite’s songs give Lundstedt the chance to belt, in addition to the more light operatic “Storybook” and she proves as awesome a belter as she is a “legit” singer. Plus she’s gorgeous!

Lundstedt’s Phantom leading man, the handsome and charismatic Kelby Thwaits, is here her chief adversary (and Sir Percy’s as well)—the dastardly Chauvelin. Thwaits not only belts his songs here, he growls them, as every villain worth his name should, and to powerful effect. Thwaits’ scenes with Lundstedt crackle with sexual tension and danger, and it’s hilarious watching him bluster as Sir Percy teases him relentlessly about his dull black coat and boring three-corner hat all the while pushing buttons galore by referring to him again and again as Shovelin’.

The production features several memorable supporting turns, most notably David O’Neill’s as Marguerite’s brother Armand.  The good-looking young actor makes the most of his several scenes, and shows off a lovely voice opposite Lundstedt in a reprise of “You Are My Home.” 

Sir Percy’s foppish entourage—Wesley Morrow, Jim Shipley, Tony Teofilo, Jason Keef, Ken Martinez, and Paul Reid—do standout work each and every one, whether joining voices in “Into The Fire” or having a gay old time strutting their chic and stylish stuff in “The Creation Of Man.”

Completing the cast in fine fashion are Jordan Byers (Mercier), Paul Reese (Coupeau), Kate Landro (Marie), Don Woodruff (Robespierre and the Prince Of Wales), and beauteous ensemble members Christa Hamilton, Melissa Malouff, Claire Proft, Cynthia Stults, Justine Valdez, and Alex Rose Wiesel.

Tom Robinson’s direction and Mark Knowles’ choreography make excellent use of GCT’s in-the-round configuration, ensuring that wherever seated, audience members never feel left out of the action. This is particularly notable in a superbly staged cat-and-mouse game between the Pimpernel and Marguerite, both in constant movement around the stage yet never coming into contact with each other. An intricately choreographed and beautifully performed masked-ball sequence is another great in-the-round moment.

The cast sound terrific under Steven Applegate’s musical direction, backed by prerecorded tracks.  Andrew Villaverde has staged an exciting swashbuckler of a sword fight between Sir Percy and Chauvelin. Tim Dietlein’s lighting and set design make one almost forget that there are audience members surrounding the action, as do Angela Wood and The Costume Shoppe’s lavish (and seemingly endless) array of costumes.

It would be nice if the actors playing French characters were all on the same page accent-wise.  (Lundstedt seems to have twice as much accent as Thwaits, for example.) Note to the cast: the name Armand has a silent “d,” otherwise it’s a woman’s name Armande.

When my only complaints are ones so minor as these, it’s clear that Glendale Centre Theatre has a winner on its hands.  Combining the kind of gorgeous melodies and period setting that has made Les Miz such a monster hit, but playing it mostly for excitement and laughs, The Scarlet Pimpernel is an exhilarating musical comedy, given a production here which thoroughly merits the cheers which greet the actors at curtain calls.

Glendale Centre Theatre, 324 N. Orange St., Glendale.

–Steven Stanley
March 1, 2009

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