By Julianne Mosher
The opening night performance of The Scarlet Pimpernel at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport had the entire audience ready to fight the French and head “into the fire” with the cast from the moment the curtain opened.
The swashbuckling adventure follows Percy Blakeney, a proper English gentleman, who takes on a dashing double identity as The Scarlet Pimpernel to save French citizens from the blood-thirsty guillotine. The Pimpernel’s exploits soon become the talk of Paris and the fanatical Agent Chauvelin will stop at nothing to catch the Pimpernel and cut off his head.
First published as a novel in a series of historical fiction by Baroness Orczy, The Scarlet Pimpernel has seen many different lives in both film and plays. Now, 118 years later, this musical version is full of color, excellent accents, a fantastical set design and an incredible ensemble that does not disappoint.
The production begins with large scarlet pimpernel flowers hanging across the stage. Throughout the play, they become part of the set used as background pieces in indoor and outdoor scenes. The actors are responsible for moving the flowers around in between set changes, as they are wheeled from the ceiling to and from the curtain. But along with the pimpernels being part of the show, each scene has a set to help tell the story.
One would think that with a score written by Frank Wildhorn (who wrote the music for Jekyll & Hyde) and a setting similar to Les Misérables that The Scarlet Pimpernel would be a dark historical fiction of the trying times of the French Revolution. While some of the play has dark undertones, the animated expressions and coy one-liners from almost everyone in the cast makes it a show that you must go see.
Directed and choreographed by Paul Stancato, the ensemble features a roster of experienced, talented artists who took on a show that was definitely not your average song and dance. Half the cast, for example, had to master a British accent, while the other half had to make the audience believe they were French — mostly sung, no less.
Starring Christopher Behmke as the title character, Nate Hackmann as Chauvelin and Arianne Davidow as Marguerite St. Just, the emotion and dedication of each actor shined bright on stage. During the happier scenes, the audience felt it and during the more somber times, the audience could see the tears filling up in the stars’ eyes.
The supporting cast makes the play, as well. Everyone had a special role in the show and none were forgettable. However, specific fan favorites of the night were Percy’s group of friends — equivalent to a college frat, they support and join Percy back and forth to France to take down the revolutionists. Showing the power of friendship, they also bring a lot of laughs to their scenes with their silly demeanors, and (pretty awesome) sword fighting.
Each character, whether it was Marguerite or the Prince of Wales (yes, he makes an appearance, too), has a distinct look with colorful, vibrant and time period costumes that change in nearly every scene. The crew definitely dressed everyone to impress from head to toe.
Terrence Mann, who played Chauvelin in the 1997 original Broadway production of the show, joined the cast on stage after the final bow.
“This was amazing,” he told the audience. “I haven’t seen this play since I did it. I just remember sitting in my dressing room when I wasn’t on stage and seeing it now saying to myself, ‘Oh! That’s what happened!’ and they did it really well.” Mann added that while sitting in the audience, himself, he heard his neighbors gasp, yell and “yay” with almost every movement.
“I think it just keeps getting better,” he said. “There are two things that happen in theater — music and the story, and this is a great story with phenomenal music. It transports everybody.”
The only thing missing from the show? More dates to see it. You’ll want to go back after the first night.
The John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport presents The Scarlet Pimpernel through April 30. Main stage theater continues with The Sound of Music from May 18 to July 2, and Jimmy Buffet’s Escape to Margaritaville from July 13 to Aug. 27. Tickets range from $80 to $85 with free valet parking. The Engeman also offers children’s theater and a special event series with live concerts and comedy nights. To order, call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com.