“The Scarlet Pimpernel” for the Lincoln Center Crowd

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It was certainly a surprise when Manhattan Concert Productions announced it would be staging a one-night only concert production of “The Scarlet Pimpernel” at Lincoln Center. This musical has mostly lived in the forgotten footnotes of Broadway history: Frank Wildhorn’s French Revolutionary romp went through two Broadway theatres, several recordings, and four revisions (five if you count this concert, which still made changes and does not exactly reflect any of the “official” versions). Despite its enigmatic position, somehow it was given a massive concert at Lincoln Center with a star-studded cast, a full orchestra, and a chorus of over 200 singers.

A bit of self-disclosure: I was in a misbegotten high school production of “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” which has become a bit of a running joke, since everyone I mention this fact to either dislikes the show or has never even heard of it. Thus, I did not know what to expect for this elite concert. To my surprise, the David Geffen Hall (usually home to the New York Philharmonic) was full to the brim with audience members in suits and gowns. After every song they applauded for such a long time the actors on the stage had to hold before starting the next scene.

Perhaps “The Scarlet Pimpernel” has never had such an enthusiastic and devoted audience. This musical, which clearly has some sort of niche fandom, certainly would not survive a Broadway revival, but this one-night only concert was the perfect venue to give the mob of devotees exactly what they wanted.

By no measure is “The Scarlet Pimpernel” a well-crafted musical. It is one of the most bizarre shows tonally: it jumps from the Comedie-Francais to the mob at the guillotine to a wedding to counter-revolutionaries dressed in pastels at a masked ball to a duel. We have romance, melodrama, violence, blackmail, metatheatricality, comedy, a secret society, and more than a dash of French Revolutionary history (Robespierre even makes a cameo).

The director of this concert, Gabriel Barre, seemingly made no effort to give this strange piece a coherent tone. The show began quite ominously and was leaning into the possible political relevancy of the mob, but then as the evening wore on any vestige of seriousness was thrown out the window and a duel to the death was swapped out for a tap dance battle (possibly the oddest moment of the concert).

The large chorus was also used to odd effect, especially since this musical’s ensemble is only in a few songs. Although they made an incredibly effective mob for the guillotine sequences, elsewhere their presence was unnecessary, superfluous, and at times even ridiculous, especially since Wildhorn’s ensemble vocal arrangements are often quite simple.

Despite the weak and sometimes incoherent direction, the concert still made for a very enjoyable evening, especially for the crowd of adoring “Scarlet Pimpernel” fans — who apparently used to refer to themselves as “the League” and made a “Be More Chill”-style rally to get to show to Broadway for renewed incarnations after its initial failure. The cast was undeniably talented, and if for no other reason, this concert was a perfect excuse to hear Laura Osnes and Tony Yazbeck perform, flanked by an impressive and unexpected cast featuring Corey Cott, Alex Newell, Drew Gheling, and more.

Although she was a bit miscast, Laura Osnes managed to surprise me and deliver a formidable Marguerite St. Just. This former Cinderella does not have the sensuous, fiery intensity usually associated with the role, but her superlative vocals and commanding stage presence make up for any other lack. Tony Yazbeck was a practically flawless Percy Blakeney: foppish, flippant, hilarious, conflicted, and passionate. Although he ignored any legitimate seriousness and exclusively embraced the comedy of the role, it worked quite well and the audience adored him for it.

The same level of praise (or any level or praise) cannot be given to the usually stupendous Norm Lewis, who here played the French Revolutionary villain, Citizen Chauvelin. Although some of the actors held scripts briefly during the dialogue scenes, Norm Lewis held his for the entirety of the show and and seemed completely unfamiliar with the character, his songs, his lines, his blocking, his costars, and the show as a whole. He came off as disengaged, under-rehearsed, and unenthused.

Overall the soloists performed in a very classical style, with massive vibrato that made the entire endeavor feel more like an opera than a musical. But maybe this is for the best, maybe “The Scarlet Pimpernel” can only work as an over-the-top, nowhere-near-realism opera. The main accusation against Wildhorn’s musical style is that is it too pop-influenced, but in this formal setting, the musical felt more grand and operatic than ever.

Though the musical may be a bit of a mess, some of the casting was not ideal, and the evening was plagued with microphone and sound balance issues (a great deal of entrance lines could not be heard and soloists often struggled to be heard over the orchestra and massive chorus), the concert overall felt like a success, especially for the audience. Much like the die-hard fans who give a standing ovation when the dame walks down the stairs in “Hello Dolly,” this audience was clearly just so ecstatic to see “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” loving it despite its many, many flaws.

Written by

Theater Critic and Queer Blogger. Vassar College alum, currently working toward a PhD at the CUNY Graduate Center.

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