“The Scarlet Pimpernel” at Tacoma Musical Playhouse is a swashbuckling adventure story set to music, with broad comedy liberally mixed into a story of love and war set during the “Reign of Terror” in the early years of the French Revolution.
The show opens with French actress Marguerite St. Just (Trista Duval) announcing her marriage to the English nobleman Percy Blakeney (Bruce Haasl, who is also the technical director and set designer).
On their wedding night, Percy finds out that Marguerite has betrayed the Marquis de St.-Cyr (Josh Jerard) to the fanatical revolutionary Citizen Chauvelin (Rafe Wadleigh), who is responsible for the death by guillotine of the Marquis.
Rather than confronting his wife, Percy goes on a crusade against the French revolutionaries under the guise of the self-invented Scarlet Pimpernel, leader of a secret band of guerrilla fighters. He and his “League of the Scarlet Pimpernel” wreak havoc on the revolutionaries and rescue arrested aristocrats who are slated for beheading. As a means of keeping their identities secret, Percy and his men pretend to be a band of foppish nincompoops (his words), which is not a stretch because that is pretty much what they already are.
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“The Scarlet Pimpernel” has everything you can ask for in a crowd-pleasing musical – love, intrigue, swashbuckling fight scenes, comedy, lush sets and music.
There is often a tightrope between comedy and sophomoric silliness, and the humor in “The Scarlet Pimpernel” balances precariously on that tightrope, in places falling on the silliness side. Most notable is the absurd scene in which Percy and his men rescue a bunch of condemned citizens by playing jump-rope and hitting people over the head with books. The humor in this scene and throughout is based solely on their foppish pretense and on Percy’s self-deprecation.
But he and his men are heroes, the love story is engaging, and the dramatic clashes between between Percy and Chauvelin, as well as between Marguerite and Chauvelin — who was once briefly her lover — are exciting.
And the music is fabulous.
Haasl’s set is impressive, and the costumes are lavish (credit Jocelyne Fowler, costume manager, and assistants Shelly Kendall, Sandy Scamehorn, Grace Stone and Margot Webb).
The acting by the three principal characters, Haasl, Duval and Wadleigh, is wonderful. All three sing well, and look and act their parts well. Wadleigh looks self-important and heartless throughout. His seriousness and intensity lift the play above mere farce. Haasl and Duval both successfully transition through a range of often contradictory emotions.
In every scene except for the love scenes, which Haasl seems to have been born to play, he never lets Percy take himself too seriously. You can see the smirk just beneath the surface of his every expression.
A great determiner of the skill of an actor is what he or she does when other actors have the spotlight. An excellent example of this is the emotional conflict depicted by Duval without saying a word or singing a line when Chauvelin tries to woo her with the song “Where’s the Girl.” While looking only at him, she reveals her deepest emotions to the audience; that is excellent acting.
Finally comes the surprising and satisfying end, following a rip-roaring sword fight between Percy and Chauvelin in which Marguerite steps in and wields a sword with authority.
“The Scarlet Pimpernel” has everything you can ask for in a crowd-pleasing musical: love, intrigue, swashbuckling fight scenes, comedy, lush sets and music, and even what seemed to me to be a short tribute to Gilbert and Sullivan in the opening of Act 2.
Check Clayton’s blog at alecclayton.blogspot.com for reviews of other area theatrical productions.
The Scarlet Pimpernel
When: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, 2 p.m. plus 2 p.m. April 23 and 30, through May 1.
Where: Tacoma Musical Playhouse, 7116 Sixth Ave., Tacoma.
Information: 253-565-6867, tmp.org.