Nothing's more dramatic than war. No one knows that better than Frank Wildhorn (his Tony-nominated Civil War premiered at the Alley last fall) and Nan Knighton, creators of The Scarlet Pimpernel. Romantic, gilded, gaudy and drop-dead sexy, this old-fashioned tale about the intrigues and dirty rotten bastards of the French Revolution is an unabashedly ostentatious musical that revels in its own theatricality.
Best of all, the production at the Wortham is the newly revised Broadway version, arriving courtesy of Theatre Under the Stars. Get ready to swoon in the presence of these stunning performers.
The counterfeit world of Louis XVI is established before the curtain rises. Set Designer Andrew Jackness's stage curtain, blood-red and strewn with painted roses and ruffles, suggests a world of false fronts and manipulation, where everything real is hidden behind a mask of carefully crafted illusion.
The first character is that most duplicitous charlatan of all: an actress. Famous French beauty Marguerite (Carolee Carmello) strolls center stage puffed up in all the frippery of the 18th century an enormous hooped skirt, doll-white face paint and a towering powdered wig on which perches a stuffed, flaming-pink dove.
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In the middle of what she intends to be her final show, this beautiful performer stops her song to bid farewell to her fans and to the dark, studly and oh-so-mysterious Chauvelin (Marc Kudisch). He turns out to be the right-hand henchman of the bloodthirsty revolutionary Robespierre. Marguerite is leaving France and the stage to marry Percy (Ron Bohmer), a rarefied, rich Englishman.
In the world of romance, such a public au revoir can change the destinies of entire nations. And The Scarlet Pimpernel is the best sort of cheesy romance. The murderous Chauvelin has kept a long and abiding thing for Marguerite. When she was young and in love with all the ideals of the French Revolution before half the nation lost its head, so to speak she let the steamy rogue have his way with her. So she's a woman with a past. Is there anyone more dangerous?
To complicate matters further, her blond fiancé is a brave-hearted nobleman with guts and good politics. He secretly despises the reign of terror and has arranged to steal a family out of France and save them from the guillotine.
What follows is a story of treachery, love and passion. The three leads a charming chorus of a supporting cast helps them carry the show play this yummy (and unapologetically commercial) story for all it's worth.
Carmello's Marguerite is beautifully sung and surprisingly complex. She is a good woman who finds herself trapped by her own history. She adores her husband. But just as the two tie the knot, he covertly discovers that she has mysterious ties to Chauvelin, ties that allowed her to do the unthinkable: betray her husband's confidence as well as the family he tried to save. But that information was blackmailed out of her by the lying Chauvelin.
Percy, bitterly disappointed with what appears to be his wife's questionable politics, cold-shoulders her before they even make it to the wedding bed. He looks her in the eye and tells her, "You are such a damned remarkable actress," then calls her wedding dress a "costume."
Daggers to the heart!
The giddy Marguerite has no idea that her Percy knows her ties to the French Revolution. And the hot-blooded French woman is completely undone when her husband's desire cools.
Bohmer has created the best kind of romance hero. Percy gathers a merry band of noblemen to undo some of the damage foisted onto the French by their own wrongheaded "citizens." To cover their tracks the swashbucklers take on the personas of "froufrou"-wearing prigs. And Bohmer is hysterical as the silliest fop of all, declaring that his trips to France are made in the name of lace collars and "rickrack."
Marguerite is confused and brokenhearted by her husband's changed character and his refusal to make love to her. When Kudisch's sexy Chauvelin returns to ask for help again, she's sorely tempted.
But will he win her?
Whatever the ending, the story has been made straight-to-the-heart sharp with Robert Longbottom's fine direction and wickedly ironic choreography. Jane Greenwood's opulent costumes bring to life the let-them-eat-cake excesses that inspired one of the Western world's bloodiest civil wars. At the risk of giving away too much, these performers and their matinee-idol charisma create a world that is to die for.
The Scarlet Pimpernelruns through August 22 at the Wortham Center, 510 Preston, (800) 678-5440. $16-$57.
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