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June 9, 2014

Heads roll in CPCC’s humorous ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’

There’s bloody history, a messy love story, deceit, skullduggery and humor in CPCC Summer Theatre season opener. Runs through June 14.

How refreshing that CPCC kicks off its 41st season with an unfamiliar musical.

“The Scarlet Pimpernel” has all the components of an old-fashioned, crowd-pleasing production. There’s bloody history, a messy love story, deceit and skullduggery. There’s enough humor to mask the abundant soft spots in the plot, and the score is a nice mix of solos and ensemble numbers.

“The Scarlet Pimpernel” was initially an historic spy and adventure novel that didn’t sell, written by the Hungarian Baroness Orczy in the early 1900s. It opened on stage in London in 1904. Critics hated it; audiences loved it. When the book was published in 1910 it was a bestseller.

The play opened on Broadway as a musical in 1997 with book and lyrics by Nan Knighton and music by Frank Wildhorn, who also wrote the score for “Jekyll & Hyde.” Critics didn’t like the musical rendition of “The Scarlet Pimpernel” either, but it ran for three years.

At CPCC Lucia Stetson plays Marguerite St. Just, a French singer with a lively past who falls passionately in love with an Englishman named Percy. They marry. Her former lover, Chauvelin, is a rabid French revolutionary for whom she has performed an odious deed. Percy does not know about Marguerite’s past.

The French Revolution is underway but there’s no depth of coverage about that. All we need to know is that guillotines are plentiful and heads are rolling. An incident occurs that estranges Percy from Marguerite. As a result, a band of merry, heroic Englishmen adopt a secret mission to undermine unjust Revolutionary killings in Paris. They are led by the Scarlet Pimpernel.

The plot is not complicated; it’s just too silly to further describe. The stage is commandeered by three solid lead actors. Stetson takes control of her love songs. Tommy Foster’s pleasing voice and hilarious affectations make Percy’s character inconsistencies not only tolerable, but pleasurable. Beau Stroupe’s Chauvelin has respectable chops, and his performance elicits both disgust and empathy.

It’s a great-looking show. Jennifer O’Kelly’s set design’s multiple painted backdrops use watercolor effects to create rooms rich with bookshelves and candelabras and curtains and portraits. Robert Croghan’s sumptuous costumes include ballroom dresses that make the women look like a bouquet of flowers, and an array of men’s hats that a drag queen would kill to own. A two-piece boat looked like something one could buy and dock.

Live music from the orchestra pit led by Musical Director Drina Keen is a treat. Director Ron Chisholm’s direction trumps his choreography, which is simple and awkward, and even so, not well executed by the ensemble. And what to do about the French accents? It’s a consistent theatrical problem, particularly when the cultural distinction is between the French and the English. How to distinguish between the two? In this case the accents are inconsistent at best, and a distraction at worst. Or maybe they are an intentional part of the humor that wends through the show.

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