There were more talented artists onstage at the David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center on Monday night than there were headless members of the French aristocracy, for a concert version of the Broadway musical, The Scarlet Pimpernel, with music by Frank Wildhorn and book and lyrics by Nan Nighton. It was presented by Manhattan Concert Productions, a group which, according to the program, “brings students, industry professionals, and the New York City Chamber Orchestra together in full-out concert presentations at this legendary venue.“
There must have been two hundred fine, young choristers onstage, behind an outstanding orchestra of some twenty-five pieces, supporting eighteen top Broadway performers, including bona fide Broadway stars Laura Osnes, Tony Yazbeck and Norm Lewis heading the cast, all under the sensitive baton of Music Director and Conductor Jason Howland.
This musical, like numerous other adaptations, is based on the 1903 play and its subsequent novelization by Baroness Orczy. The story is set during the Reign of Terror following the start of the French Revolution. An English nobleman, Percy Blakeney (Tony Yazbeck), marries France’s leading actress, Marguerite St. Just (Laura Osnes), and brings her back to England. As “Madame Guillotine” severs the heads of the fallen upper class, Percy concocts a scheme by which he and a group of like-minded English noblemen can secretly go into France and save as many aristocratic lives as possible. He adopts a secret identity, the Scarlet Pimpernel, taken from the name of the flower on his family crest, to lead their raids. As such, he becomes the sworn enemy of French envoy, Chauvelin (Norm Lewis). To avoid suspicion, Percy poses as an apathetic, non-violent, fashion-minded fop. Marguerite’s brother, Armand (Corey Colt), joins the Pimpernel’s group, and is captured by Chauvelin in France. Threatening to kill Armand if Marguerite does not cooperate, Chauvelin pressures Marguerite into spying for him in England, to learn and reveal the true identity of the Pimpernel.
I have two great regrets in life. The first is trading all my Silver Age Marvel comics for twenty Famous Monsters of Filmland magazines when I was nineteen years old. The second is not having cast Laura Osnes as the lead in my musical at the New York Musical Theater Festival in 2008, when I could have afforded her. Since then, I’ve had the great pleasure of watching this radiant, talented, super sweet, and utterly professional performer grow into a musical theater superstar. She sang the show gloriously, with passion and nuance, including the show’s most famous song, “When I Look At You.” She also filled every acting moment onstage with tremendous heart and total commitment.
Tony Yazbeck is a fine American song and dance man, who delivered highly physicalized comedic moments for the foppish Percy. It also gave Associate Director and Choreographer, Jennifer Paulson, the chance to turn a sword fight between Percy and Chauvelin into an over the top, comedic dance-off. Mr. Yazbeck sang the heck out of this difficult score, with a much bigger and more dramatic voice than I knew he had. But playing a British twinkie is not really his cup of tea. When Mr. Yazbeck smiled, he showed the charm that made him such a hit in the On the Town revival. But he never quite seemed to have the ease with the style of the language which made Douglas Sills’s Tony nominated Broadway performance so memorable.
Norm Lewis is one of the truly great musical theater actor-singers on Broadway. As a warm baritone with an exceptional head voice, he effortlessly navigated the demanding range of Chauvelin’s dramatic songs. He also brought just the right level of menace and slime to his scenes with the hapless Marguerite.
Mr. Barre brought numerous light touches and clever bits to his direction of the show. He made amusing use of the orchestra during the fight scene, in which Mr. Yazbeck tried to borrow their instruments to use as weapons.
Another “star” of the show was the awesome guillotine, looming center stage over the entire show. This was a real magic prop. Not just one but two actors get their heads chopped off during the show, in an illusion so convincing I still have no idea how it was done.
But all aspects of production were not so perfect. I had to complain to sound designer Dave Horowitz at intermission that I couldn’t understand half of what was being said or sung during the first act, even though I was sitting in the fifth row, because the principals’ vocals were buried. For the second act, the vocals were magically put up front, where they belonged. Even then, however, mikes were opened late, important lines were lost, and levels varied wildly. It’s all about the sound. Not to mention, this was at Lincoln Center. If the production team can’t get that right…off with their heads!
Brilliantly funny Drew Gehling as Robespierre and the Prince of Wales, and the powerful John Tracy Egan as the British nobleman Ozzy, shone. Corey Cott as Armand also mostly off book, did a great job. Dana Costello was also compelling as Marguerite’s friend, Marie.
Like all Equity staged readings, this was presented with only a week of rehearsal. But there is a technique to working book in hand which Laura Osnes has mastered, that Mr. Yazbeck and Mr. Lewis did not manage nearly as well.
Ms. Osnes came to work knowing her role inside out. She had her song lyrics fully memorized. You never even noticed she had a script in hand for her dialogue scenes. The few times she needed it, she took in her line, looked up, and then acted fully with her fellow performers. She always let us see her eyes, and we could always see right into her soul. But like all great performers, she never let us see her working.
Mr. Yazbeck, however, kept his face all too frequently buried in his script. Mr. Lewis, for his part, often sang his songs to his hand. This doesn’t take away from their talents. But as Ms. Osnes clearly demonstrated, when you sign on to do a show with too little rehearsal time, it’s still on you to be ready to bring it in performance.