THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL
Music by Frank Wildhorn, Lyrics & Book by Nat Knighton
Based on the book by Baroness Orczy
Plaza Theatre Company
Directed by JaceSon & Tina Barrus
Musical Direction by Dick Helmcamp
Choreography by Jill Baker
Stage Management by Stefanie Glenn
Costume Design by Tina Barrus
Assistant Costume Design by Soni Barrus and Ashlie Christenson
Lighting Design by Cameron Barrus
Sound Design by G. Aaron Siler
Scenic Design by JaceSon Barrus
Properties by Milette Siler
Sir Percival Blakeney: David Cook
Marguerite St. Just: Christine Atwell (NOTE: Role is double cast)
Chauvelin: Ben Phillips
Marie Grosholtz: Caroline Rivera (NOTE: Role is double cast)
Tussaud: Solomon Abah
The Prince of Wales/ Robespierre: Bob Beck
Mercier: Chris Seil
Coupeau: Devlin Pollock
Jessup: Jamie Long
St. Cyr: Mike Scarlett
Armand St. Just: Joey Geisel
Dewhurst: Luke Hunt
Elton: G. Aaron Siler
Farleigh: JaceSon P. Barrus
Hal: Stephen Singleton
Ozzy: Jonathan Metting
Jill Baker, Cameron Barrus, Eden Barrus, Tabitha Barrus, Tina Barrus, Brooke
Boyd, Daron Cockerell, Monica Glenn, Stefanie Glenn, Dora Hunt, Auston McIntosh,
Justin Olivas, Sara Scarlett, Dana Siler, Milette Siler, Betsy Wilson
Reviewed Performance 3/19/2011
Reviewed by John Garcia, Senior Chief Critic/Editor/Founder for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
In 1999, Frank Wildhorn became the favorite target for the snarky New York press, especially the New York Post's Michael Reidel. Like a demonic beast, he would lick his fangs each week, thirsty for more blood to drain from Wildhorn's work; to bite deep into his shows and rip to shreds the flesh off the bones of Wildhorn's creations.
The gothic press seemed to enjoy, no, relish in slaughtering Wildhorn's music and shows. The composer, however, did achieve a goal that very (and I mean VERY) few composers can boast. In 1999 he had three musicals running on Broadway simultaneously- JEKYLL & HYDE, THE CIVIL WAR, & THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL.
I caught the Broadway versions of J&H and PIMPERNEL, and saw CIVIL WAR on tour. I was also able to catch the pre-Broadway tryout run of J&H when it arrived at Dallas Summer Musicals. I went back five times to see it. Each time new music and book scenes were added, while other songs and scene work were deleted. When I saw the final product on Broadway, it had changed dramatically than when I first saw it. Same goes for PIMPERNEL.
PIMPERNEL had a bizarre, stressful journey on Broadway. It was the first musical on Broadway that kept opening, closing, and then reopening with new songs and book constantly rewritten. Thus it was labeled on Broadway as PIMPERNEL, Versions 2.0 and 3.0 - three openings, two different Broadway theaters. The musical, with its three versions, ran from 1997 to 2000, with a combined total of 772 performances. But it would earn a Tony nod for Best Musical.
Each time it reopened, it was again butchered by the critics. While some of the reviews were a tad too odious, a few of them did make some valid points.
I had only seen Version 1.0 and 3.0 of PIMPERNEL, plus his other two musicals. At this writing, his new musical, WONDERLAND, is in previews on Broadway. All three past musicals had the same glaring problems of dreadful books and too much filler music. Each musical Wildhorn composed did contain some exquisite songs - alas there were only a couple of those ear candy gems in each show. The rest of the score was weighed down by cumbersome songs that dragged down the pace, creating problematic hurdles for characters to jump over. The songs seemed to lack grounded, fully fleshed out subtext and character development. Plus, the man had way too much focus on ballads.
All three musicals that he composed were saddled with ballads. While some were marvelous to hear on stage, others just seemed to suck the energy right out of the show itself. I had also noticed how some melodies sounded a tad too similar to some of his other compositions.
As I watched PIMPERNEL at Plaza Theater Company on Saturday night, I slowly began to notice how some of the melodies in the ballads had a familiar ring to a couple of the ballads in JEKYLL & HYDE.
Another glaring problem with a Wildhorn show was the books. Each one had a similar issue, which was the lack of true emotional weight and muscular subtext. The book writers seemed to sleepwalk through the process of creating substance within the characterizations and the plot. Out of the three, CIVIL WAR had the worse book. PIMPERNEL's book was confusing with its focus, plot, and character development. It jumped all over the place, both physically and emotionally. The book also dropped characters right and left, only to bring them back as a tag line. The book strove to connect all the dots and tie up all the loose ends by the end, but tripped all over itself to get to that finale.
Even the 2000 National Tour PIMPERNEL version was tweaked yet again before it sailed across America. The final Broadway version had a rocky French seacoast set but, because of its mammoth size it was replaced by the show's Act One, Scene One setting of a theatre. Another tweak was the final scene. A guillotine was set up on stage while enemies Chauvelin and Sir Percy had their final sword fight amongst the curtains and gaslight. To some PIMPERNEL fans, this became Version 4.0
Here's two examples of what I mean: In Version 1.0 there was a soaring, emotional song titled "You Are My Home" that was sung by two principals and the ensemble in the French prison. It had a powerful transgression composed in the song that lifted the number to a glorious crescendo, both emotionally and musically. Thus, when the names of those to be executed were called, the song greatly aided in making the subtext and emotion hit you hard. For Version 3.0, which Plaza Theatre was doing, the song was taken out of Act 2 and placed early in the first act, with Percy now joining in. It lost all the emotional subtext that it had when sung in the prison. Another glaring error was the finale. Version 1.0 had a grand choral company number titled "Believe". For Version 3.0, it was a reprise of another song. Again, it lacked that emotional strength and, oddly enough, the song sounded too anti-climatic and felt a tad of a let-down for the audience.
And yet, with their endless bag of magical theatricality, Plaza Theatre Company (PTC) has once again mounted a sublime production that solidifies their stance as one of the few theater companies in this entire region that continues to produce outstanding theater. Husband and wife, JaceSon & Tina Barrus, directed this production with polish, finesse, and slick professionalism.
Theater in the round is never easy to stage, and these two made it look so effortlessly. They constantly created both dramatic and emotional picture windows, resulting in excellent results within their blocking and staging. There were levels all over the stage. They also had at their disposal a grounded circular platform that rotated on its own. This gave many scenes visual enhancement that actually helped create both touching and dramatic moments for their blocking. And the added cherry on top - no sight problems! Not once did I see an actor's face blocked or the stage look cluttered and unclean.
The directors wisely knew when to go full out in the comedy, but reeled it back in when it was required. They have cast a large company of actors. I had seen so many musicals around town in which large casts were pushed up against the wall to just stand there and sing and nothing else. Or they were thrown in clumps or lines with the director telling them to do the ole "rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb/fuzza-fuzza-fuzza" noise. The Barrus directors completely avoided that here. This large, talented cast had dynamic staging assigned to them. They all had purpose and commitment to their performances. The pace was perfection and there were no long, sluggish scene changes. In fact, the cast would rush in the dark to constantly change set pieces like a well oiled machine. Kudos also went to stage manager Stefanie Glenn who was on top of things and made scene changes go fast, in complete silence, never once becoming distracting. For example, a piece of the prison was left on stage by accident in the second act. But then, from the dark, a French soldier appeared on stage and took the piece off with purpose, never once upsetting the scene that was going on in the light.
Dick Helmcamp's musical direction again glowed with rich vocals from leads to ensemble. The harmonies were crisp, the crescendos were in unison and the cut offs were right on cue. PTC used taped music, but the music never once sounded "taped" or canned. It was not that god awful, cheap, electronic mush that taped music can sometimes sound to the ears. Instead you could hear actual strings, cellos, violins, and even a harpsichord. The exquisite taped music gave the cast a silken, woven sea of orchestration to sing upon.
Jill Baker's choreography was alluring and had an ambience of romance and elegance throughout the evening. Her first choreographed number alone, "Storybook", showed this softness in the dancing of the cast. All that was missing was a winged cherub spewing water center stage. The choreography for the ball was another fantastic choreographed piece. There was a lot of book scene work within the number - who was whispering to who and secrets told - but the choreography created here was layered perfectly within the staging. Finally, Baker's best work came with the number, "Creation of Man". You'll just have to go see it to enjoy it all. I won't ruin the hysterical choreography Baker did for that number.
The design elements that PTC's productions continue to create always leave me speechless. I am always floored and utterly amazed by what they create in that space with light, sound, set, and costume. Their design elements actually outshine some equity productions that I see around town. They are that good. They refuse to take the approach of "community" theater, but instead strive to look as professional as possible, and they have succeeded here again.
JaceSon Barrus's scenic design was grand. The creation of the circular platform that revolved on its own achieves major visual delight for the audience. Because of this piece, several musical numbers had an aura of Busby Berkeley. Barrus placed ornate waist-high stone walls to create various rooms; for a garden scene he created these charming wood boxes with flowers exploding all over them. I also found the sinister looking blanket of fog that poured onto the stage for the bridge scene a brilliant touch. There were also prison cell walls, a beautiful wooden bridge and a real life guillotine! Maybe it's because I have a "slight" addiction to glitter and sparkly things, but the final piece of terrific scenery was the glitter/sequined curtain that had the logo on it. The designers smartly used this sparkly curtain to flash the titles of scenes or places within the show.
The lighting designed by Cameron Barrus was superior in color palette choices, focus, and precision. Many scenes were bathed in glorious color or, when it came to dramatic moments, the stage was slathered in blood red. For one dark scene in the second act, Barrus had whirling, blinding spears of white light. Even for a theater in a round, and an intimate one at that, Barrus had lighting that was specific and in perfect harmony with the staging and blocking. That's a rare (and I mean RARE) quality in many theaters today. So many shows have maybe 1 or 2 specials and a basic lights up/lights down approach - not Plaza. They spent a fortune for their lighting-and it shows in every show I've seen there-including this one.
I gave kudos to Milette Siler's props as well. From the coal black canes to the period furniture & statues, her props aided to set the show in the 1700s.
Sound Designer G. Aaron Siler beautifully balanced the vocals to match the orchestra. You could hear both in perfect harmony. The only minor flaw in the sound was the placement of the body mics on some principals. At times, their belting notes sounded a tad muffled or, when they got physical with each other, you could hear costume rustling or feedback. But this was opening weekend, and those problems are easily fixable.
There were a couple of errors that stood out in the design departments.
For example, when a character was told to take a letter, he had a black feather but no ink to dip into to write the letter. And, because the space was intimate, you could see even the tiniest of mistakes a much bigger facility could get away with. For example, there were letters and notes that the Pimpernel wrote and put his seal on. But, when the audience could see them, the paper looked too modern and there was no writing or seal on them. Finally, some of the wigs did not look as polished and coiffed as some of the others. Several of the men wore wigs that were too big for their heads and looked quite messy. One wig completely swallowed up the face of a young soldier, making him look like Cousin It, Jr. Again, minor issues that I'm sure can be remedied.
When I saw Tina Barrus's name on the playbill, I knew I would see actual crafted, made from scratch costumes. These were not rentals. I was informed that she started working on these costumes back in October 2010. Now that's a designer committed to their craft. Artistic Directors and Producers, take note. You need to hire this woman and her factory of incredible assistants and seamstresses. The costumes for this production were MAGNIFICENT (yes-I wrote that in capital letters). The fabrics alone were dazzling. She used silks, satins, lace, brocade, chiffon, sequins, and rhinestones. Many of the coats, vests, and floor length gowns were made of rich, heavy fabrics that had jacquard patterns that popped. Barrus stayed completely true to period. She, along with Costume Design Assistants,
Soni Barrus & Ashlie Christenson, created elegant, beautiful hats for both the men and the women. They even painted and added colorful embellishments to the shoes. The whole collection was very Rococo and paid homage to grand Baroque.
The gold and white gown that Marguerite wore in one scene was jaw dropping in its elegant design, as was the dark red one she later wore. The ball scene alone was like stepping into another world. The costumes for each cast member were individually designed with fantastic results. Finally, there were the over the top costumes the men wore for one special number. I won't ruin the fun here for you, but I'll let you know this: Barrus went all out designing those costumes - from hats to shoes - and the audience applauded loudly in appreciation for the visual hilarity that she created. Ms. Barrus is that elite designer that seldom exists in this theater community. I can think of maybe six or eight costume designers that actually create costumes from scratch. Barrus created at least 70 period costumes for a large cast - from scratch. Who does that nowadays other than Opera houses and Broadway?
Ms. Barrus and her costume team truly outdid themselves with this production.
What about the cast? In a word-splendid. From ensemble to principals, each one of them shined throughout the evening. Nothing impressed me more than an ensemble that had the same level of talent as the leads. I kept looking at the ensemble, and they were in the moment, every single time. The prison scene could have come off overly dramatic but, instead, the ensemble reflected internally and beautifully and, along with the staging, showed the horrors of their impending doom. Never once stepping into the mawkish ponds of melodramatic, when they sang of liberty and revolution, defiance and strength poured from them all.
One problem, though, with several in the ensemble as well as supporting and leads, was the dropping of the French and British dialects. Some minor characters did not even have a British accent, which caused their performance to suffer. Throughout the evening, accents came and went. This slight blemish could be opening weekend jitters for an otherwise first rate cast.
I must commend ensemble member Devlin Pollack as "Coupeau". He is a teenager, but he never once showed this on stage. As a French soldier, he held his own with the adults in the cast. His facial expressions were excellent as he took prisoners to their death. In the number, "I'll Forget You", Pollack walked around the entire perimeter of the jail with the correct, rigid posture of a soldier; his face stone cold devoid of any care for the cellmates.
Another minor character delivered with radiant stage presence was Caroline Rivera as "Marie Grosholtz". Here is where Wildhorn horribly dropped the ball in not writing a song for this character. Last week, Rivera won the COLUMN Award for BEST ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL (non-equity) for her extraordinary performance as the witch in INTO THE WOODS. Sadly here, the role was so poorly written and she had no song. Rivera delivered a wonderful performance and had the best French accent within the cast. (NOTE: This role is double cast with Bree Cockerell).
The scene stealers of Plaza's PIMPERNEL were the six actors who made "The Bounders". In the original novel they were called "The League Society of the Scarlet Pimpernel". They were a group of 20 aristocrats who helped Sir Percy in his quest to bring down the evil Chauvelin and his French revolution. When I saw the Broadway production and the national tour, there were at least 15-20 men who made up the bounders. For Plaza Theatre, they were reduced to six. But oh, what a great group of six they were!
Luke Hunt (Dewhurst), JaceSon P. Barrus (Farleigh), Stephen Singleton (Hal), Jonathan Metting (Ozzy), and G. Aaron Siler (Elton) were all wickedly hilarious as they turned from proper Englishmen into outlandish fops. These men, along with David Cook as "Percy", had the best comedic, show-stopping number of the night with "The Creation of Man". With the aid of Tina Barrus's costumes and Jill Baker's choreography, this number had me guffawing loudly in my seat. These actors relished in the comedy, and the audience joined right there with them. All of these actors sang with full gusto, danced with side splitting results (in period heels!) and all possessed sharp comedic pace, delivery, and timing. The crowning layer was the way they used their bodies and facial expressions to wring out every possible laugh from that number-and that they did!
Joey Geisel gave a noble moving performance as "Armand St. Just", the brother who was falsely imprisoned. His chemistry with Christine Atwell, as his sister Marguerite, was very believable, which warmed the audience's heart. Unfortunately Wildhorn did not compose a duet for this brother and sister that were major characters in the show. Geisel should have put Wildhorn into the guillotine for this major flaw in the book and score. Geisel allowed his shackled body to be thrown violently onto the ground in the second act. I loathe fake slaps, punches, or fights on stage. I completely empathize with the actor's safety, but when it looks so fake or pantomimed, it loses its dramatic intensity. Geisel did not allow that to happen but went all out and gave the scene the intensity it required, resulting in honest compassion for him from the audience.
Like JEKYLL & HYDE, Wildhorn created a trio of leads that took us on his musical journey in PIMPERNEL. But this time, instead of two women and a man, we had two men and one woman. This trio comprised David Cook as "Sir Percival Blakeney", Ben Phillips as "Chauvelin", and Christine Atwell as "Marguerite St. Just" (This role is double cast with Meredith Browning).
All three sang marvelously with clear tones, balanced vibratos and very sturdy belting notes. The chemistry between all three was riveting, keeping the audience engrossed in their characters. These three leading performers had great command of the stage and vivid stage presence.
I must give full disclosure that no other theater critic would dare write in a review, but I have a big crush on Ms. Christine Atwell. I fell for her when I first saw her deliver a breath taking performance as "Eliza Doolittle" in MY FAIR LADY at Artisan Center Theater. She then again stole my heart as "Abigail Adams" in 1776 at The Greater Cleburne Carnegie Players. She finally sealed my admiration with her lovely portrayal of "Betty Blake" in WILL ROGERS FOLLIES (PTC). As "Marguerite", Atwell's physical beauty alone would have made any Baroque painter create endless canvases of her porcelain features and seductive eyes. Atwell does a commendable job with the French dialect. Her biggest strengths, though, were her singing and acting.
She was always in the moment, never once dropping character. Even when she stood in the dark waiting for the lights to come on, she was in character. She had a euphonious soprano voice that floated over the audience like a hypnotic mist, wanting to hear her sing more. All her solos were melodic gems, particularly "When I look at You" and "I'll Forget You". Her commitment to the dramatic overtones of her character was also to be admired. She did not stick to the "been there, done that" pot hole of acting that some leading actresses in musicals fall into. Instead, she not only acted but reacted to what was all around her, both physically and emotionally. Ms. Atwell could do no wrong in my book with her performance.
As the villain "Chauvelin", Ben Phillips had a major challenge as an actor. He was stuck with a role that was written one note - evil. The book writer and composer horribly failed the character by forcing him to stay the villain all night long. Phillips thankfully created a characterization that was more fully fleshed out than what was written on paper or in song. He gave "Chauvelin" solid conflict between falling for a woman who hated him, and his duty to his sword and revolution. Even while clothed in dark colors, you still saw a man who was battling his inner demons of being human. Phillips had a great belting voice that brought the house down in "Falcon in the Dive". But then he showed conflicted compassion with "Where's The Girl?" Phillips won this year's COLUMN Award for BEST ACTOR IN A MUSICAL for INTO THE WOODS. His performance here in PIMPERNEL showed why he was lauded that prize.
I watched Douglas Sills deliver a tour de force performance as the leading male role in Broadway's PIMPERNEL. He was magnificent and earned a Tony nomination for it. Now it was local actor David Cook who became the hero who must also become a squealing fop. It was a hard act to follow but Cook's performance was wonderful and quite dynamic. He easily transformed from the strong, masculine leader of his fellow band of Brits to the over the top, slightly flamboyant fop, fooling the French soldiers and Chauvelin, in particular.
You could see Cook savoring in the buffoonery of "Sir Percy", but then show his romantic side when he had to deal with his complicated marriage to Marguerite (Atwell). Cook had a fine tenor voice that created glittery musical baubles with such solos as "Prayer", "Into the Fire", and his finest vocal song, "She was There". Like his counterparts, Cook had a solid belt that really needed no amplification.
He carried the show with strong stage presence and laugh out loud comedic chops when it was needed. The one problem was his diction in some lyrics, as well with his British and Belgian accents. Off and on I did not quite understand what he was saying due to the accents or swallowing of words. But Cook is a pro so after a few more performances under his lace ascot he'll fix this.
This was how much of a pro he was. In the number, "Creation of Man", he seemed to have left his lavender scarf backstage. You only realized this missing costume prop because the other men pulled out colored scarves. But this did not faze Cook at all. There was a lot of choreography used with the scarf, so Cook simply pantomimed having the scarf in his hand. It actually made the number that much funnier. So when one of the female ensemble members brought it out, it was like the perfect comedic button for him to end the number. Cook delivered a dashing, exciting performance here.
This was my fifth musical to view at Plaza Theatre. Each one was sensational. Two of them I did not review, but if I had, I would have given them raves. This theater company refuses to stay stuck in the mud; producing musicals in the same old tired, paint by number format some theater companies around town are drowning in. Plaza Theatre, instead, continues to challenge itself both artistically and creatively. They still cater to their audiences with family themed shows. But they also bring to their audiences new musicals that elevate them artistically. They have yet to disappoint me.
I am such a lover, fanatic, and performer of musical theater. It's my biggest passion and drug of choice. Plaza feeds my musical addiction to the ninth degree each time I go there. They are now at a level of artistic refinement that can match an equity production. They are THAT good!
A perfect example of that statement ends my review. This cast performed a medley from SCARLET PIMPERNEL at the 12th Annual COLUMN Awards Gala. That was their tech week. Yet they took that night off, brought all those costumes and wigs and did a full out medley. They performed this in front of the entire Dallas-Fort Worth theater community, their very peers. What was the end result? The audience responded with ear splitting cheers and applause when they finished. Ladies and gentleman, if you were there that night, you saw what Plaza Theater Company is all about and why I have such great respect and admiration for this company.
THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL
Plaza Theatre Company, 111 S. Main Street, Cleburne, TX 76033
Plays through April 16th
Performances are at Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm
and Saturday matinees at 3:00 pm.
Tickets are $15.00 for adults, $13.00 for seniors and $12.00
for children. Group rates are available.
Reservations are recommended and can be made by calling 817-202-0600
or visiting the Plaza Box Office between 10 am- 6 pm Monday thru Saturday.