Fate was kind to me this last month of winter 2008. First, I had the good fortune to fly back from New York the day before a northeast snowstorm tied up airports across the country. Secondly, I arrived in Texas just in time to see the final performance of “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” from Houston’s home of musical repertory theatre, The Masquerade Theatre. It would have been a shame to miss it!
Skillfully directed by Phillip Duggins, and based on the 1905 story by Baroness Orczy, the show features the lovely music of Frank Wildhorn, and a fine book and lyrics from Nan Knighton. (The printed program erred in crediting Wildhorn with the lyrics). Interestingly, the Broadway run of the late 1990’s had three varying incarnations, with a fourth that went on national tour. This Masquerade production is based on the third Broadway attempt of 1998 that lasted only 4 months in New York before Pimpernel began its “afterlife” with successful touring and regional productions.
Set in the late 18th century period of the French Revolution, this is the tale of wealthy Englishman, Percy Blakeney (alias the Scarlet Pimpernel) who enlists a group of his aristocratic comrades for the purpose of rescuing revolutionaries in France who are headed (no pun intended) to the guillotine. At show’s opening, Percy (brilliantly played by talented Luther Chakurian), has married his beloved Marguerite (Kristina Sullivan), star of the Comédie Française. As they take up married life at his estate in England, he rapidly suspects her of being a spy for the French, perhaps conspiring with the evil Chauvelin (played with devilish cruelty, and considerable vocal skill, by Ilich Guardiola) . In reaction, Percy recruits his friends (known as the “bounders“), and disguised as the illusive Scarlet Pimpernel, he leads the men in frequent raids into France to save those threatened by the cruelties of government crackdowns on the revolutionaries. To avoid detection, Percy and his men go out of their way to appear as careless, self-absorbed, and aristocratic fops who would never be suspected of serious political involvement. The bounders are hilariously and effetely played by Evan Tessier, Richard Pearson, Joshua Wright, Corey Hartzog, Braden Hunt, Michael J. Ross, and John Gremillion. They are joined by Marguerite’s trusted brother, Armand (a nice performance from handsome Brad Scarborough). Chakurian’s masterful comic leadership of this little band is uproarious, and they all appear gayer than any Rainbow Coalition as they seek to fulfill Percy‘s stated goal to “…convince all of England we are nincompoops.” They dispel all doubts as they prance about in a carousel of dainty nonsense titled, “The Creation of Man.”
But enough about plot. Let us move to the marvelous music in this production, with Paula Smith nicely conducting the 13-piece orchestra. (Only during a couple of harpsichord segments did the music drown out dialogue or lyrics). The modest Overture was quickly overtaken by the elegant “Storybook” opening number with lovely Miss Sullivan in soaring voice while aided by her Cupids. The exquisite period costumes (designers, Kayleen Clements and Bet Lazarou) seemed to clash with the lack of scenery at the show’s outset, and again during a grand ballroom scene that had but two tired little chandeliers. ( I wonder if Houston’s furniture king, Jim McIngvale, wouldn’t have loaned some grand chandeliers in exchange for mention in the program.) But set and scenic designs (Russell Freeman and Amy R. Ross) would improve during the effective estate garden, library, and guillotine scenes.
Mr. Guardiola led the full company in his resounding and powerful “Madame Guillotine,” with thrilling support from the ensemble that quickly reminded one of the vocal passions in the musical “Les Misérables.” That large and talented ensemble cast (several of whom play double, and even triple roles) anchors this large production. Even the British and French dialects (coached by Guardiola, Sam Brown and Beth Lazarou) are carried off effectively. Sullivan and Chakurian radiate love and warmth singing the beautiful “You Are My Home” wedding number that features some pleasant dancing for the wedding guests (choreography from Mr. Duggins). In fine voice, Chakurian’s “Prayer” skillfully reveals Percy’s longing and heartbreak as he suspects his bride‘s complicity with the French regime. There is more of Chakurian’s fierce and compelling vocal intensity as he leads his comrades “Into the Fire” amid the lusty singing of our heroes and a well-choreographed fencing scene. Guardiola follows with a compelling delivery of Chauvelin’s “Falcon in the Dive,” that is occasionally just a bit strident. He also delivers a mystically haunting, “Where’s the Girl,” demonstrating a unique skill at singing in a seductive whisper that is full of passion. The “Scarlet Pimpernel Transition” was a cute number with Marguerite and her housemaids looking as though they had popped out of a scene in “My Fair Lady,” while that ambitious harpsichord obscured some of the witty lyrics. Sullivan’s poignant “When I Look at You” was lovely, minus a few moments when the vocal was slightly sharp around the edges. It must be said that the ever-escalating vocal skill of this company’s players through the years, makes me wonder if there is an unsung hero of a vocal coach somewhere behind the scenes. The splendid “Riddle” trio that closed Act One was yet another example of that vocal excellence.
Act II delights included the delicate court dancing of a Masquerade Ball scene full of intrigues and lighthearted nonsense. Then there was the thrilling highlight of Chakurian’s explosive “She Was There” that stopped the show with its power. It made me wonder if he even needed the microphone. Sullivan delivers a heart-wrenching “I’ll Forget You” that will keep the audience from forgetting her fine performance. After a few frightening twists, we arrive at a satisfying Cinderella ending to this latest triumph from Masquerade. Going out-on-a-limb in his preface to the printed program, the enthusiastic Duggins essentially wrote his own review as he justifiably boasted, “I know that you’ll agree that this is one of our most magnificent productions yet!” At the risk of appearing to be influenced by the director, I would have to agree.
Masquerade‘s season will continue with Lucky Stiff, March 28th – April 6th, 2008. Performances at Houston’s Zilkha Hall in the Hobby Center will be Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., as well as 2 p.m. matinees on both Saturdays and Sundays. For tickets and information call 713-861-7045 or visit the website at: www.masqueradetheatre.com.