Norton Singers’ Scarlet Pimpernel Leaves Audiences Whistling

Photo courtesy of The Norton Singers. Photo by Mike Daniels

Photo courtesy of The Norton Singers. Photo by Mike Daniels

When it comes to musicals about French revolutions, Les Mis has the market cornered.

But there is another oft-forgotten musical about the same topic. The Scarlet Pimpernel came about a decade later, and like Les Mis, it was adapted from a novel. In addition to the glaring similarity in subject matter, there are some similar characters and musical motifs that may seem familiar.

And that’s where their similarities end.

The Scarlet Pimpernel never takes itself too seriously. Though it takes place during the infamous Reign of Terror, there isn’t much in the way of terror. In fact, it is unquestionably a comedy, driven by its central band of unlikely heroes. Though it may not be as popular as Les Mis, it’s a story that’s permeated our culture; it was the inspiration behind Batman, in addition to being adapted over and over again in sequels, on screen and on stage. Directed by Ted Mitchell, the Norton Singers take audiences on the swashbuckling adventure of the hero Paris deserved.

At the helm of the show are three spectacularly talented leads. First, we meet Marguerite St. Just (PattiLou Davis), a French actress who leaves France to marry her British sweetheart, Percy Blakeney (Ethan Butler). On their wedding night, Percy uncovers a terrible secret about his bride: She is in league with Citizen Chauvelin (Gregory Gillis), a fanatical agent of the French revolutionaries and is responsible for the execution of Marquis de St.-Cyr. Their marriage grows cold before it properly begins.

It is with the antagonist that Pimpernel looks suspiciously like Les Mis. Chauvelin is a very Javertian character in his undying but incompetent pursuit of our outlaw protagonist, and even in lyrics that evoke similar imagery. Unsurprisingly, Gillis has played Javert before. His vocals are mighty in the thrilling “Falcon in the Dive,” in which he swears to hunt down his foe, and the creepy “Where’s the Girl?” in which he alludes to a past affair with Marguerite and tries to seduce her once again. His delivery and presence have all the bite and intensity of idealist gone off the deep end into terror.

Davis is an absolute star from the start. Vocally, she is both expressive and powerful, particularly in her numbers “When I Look at You” and “I’ll Forget You,” as she laments the way her husband has changed.  She also has a fantastic “my husband’s an idiot” facial expression, particularly in the ball scenes.

As the titular hero, Butler is both scheming and charismatic as he leads his band of merry men. He concocts a scheme to pretend to be unbelievably foppish and shallow to avoid suspicion while secretly freeing people from the guillotine in Paris. He and his crew, played by Timothy Fleming, Greg Geer, Daniel Gravely, Michael Stanley, Craig O’Connor and Seamus Corbett, as well as Anthony Rinaldi as Armand St. Just, Marguerite’s younger brother, are hilarious in this charade, dressing up in absurd clothing and pretending to be complete airheads. This is highlighted in “The Creation of Man,” which involves intricate handkerchief waving and passing, with varying levels of success as some end up on the floor, but this kind of works for their characters. They set off on their quest in the boisterous and exciting number “Into the Fire,” which is a highlight of the show.

The costumes are brilliantly designed by Kathryn Ridder, assisted by Jan Connoly, to evoke the era, from peasant clothing to lavish ballgowns and the more ridiculous costumes of Percy and company in the ballroom scenes. The set, designed by Corbett Thursby, is similarly impressive, with a staircase, the all-important guillotine, and an actual working chandelier for the ballroom scene (which, incidentally is a masquerade, so if the parallels with Les Mis weren’t enough, Phantom of the Opera is thrown into the mix as well).

The cast is accompanied by a 12-piece orchestra, which is most impressive for a community theater, though regrettably, Wheaton College’s Weber Theater does not have a proper pit, so you might want to avoid the first few rows, as they may obstruct your view.

Though you wouldn’t think it considering the subject matter, The Scarlet Pimpernel is a fun show, with comedic moments and some great musical moments. Leaving the theater, I could hear people whistling or humming some of the music, which attests to how catchy it is. From romance to comedy to adventure and heroes in disguise, Pimpernel is a show that has something for everyone.

The Scarlet Pimpernel runs through June 10 at the Weber Theatre, Wheaton College in Norton, Mass. For tickets, visit nortonsingers.com or call the box office at 508-285-4049

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