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Robespierre’s Follies

Photo by Joan Marcus

The first of many questions provoked by the Center Theater Group’s lavishly decorated, beautifully performed and ultimately ridiculous production of The Scarlet Pimpernel (based on Baroness Orczy’s novel) is how many more musicals about French history they think we can stomach. With Les Misèrables, Martin Guerre and The Scarlet Pimpernel all in one season, the Ahmanson has become something of a theme park of antique Francophile fantasies, where ladies do little but wait around to be abused and/or rescued by gents with ambivalent sexual predilections.

Mildly amusing, slightly annoying and no less ludicrous after having been reworked since its 1997 Broadway drubbing, The Scarlet P. employs the aftermath of the French Revolution as a frame for Nan Knighton (book and lyrics) and Frank Wildhorn’s (music) swashbuckling ostensible investigation of trust and loyalty in marriage and politics, nestled into a theme about the nature of disguise. In truth, being a parody of the gothic-romance genre, the production investigates almost nothing except its own devices, offering a flippant parade of baroque scenic backdrops (Andrew Jackness), lush period costumes (Jane Greenwood), contemporary torch songs, a swordfight (staged by Rick Sordelet) and, just as the ads proclaim, “lotsa laughs” (credit the actors and director-choreographer Robert Longbottom for those). Yet, as in any gothic romance, parody or not, there are deeper meanings lurking beneath.

The story concerns an octet of English aristocrats who form a clandestine vigilante militia to rescue fair maidens from French guillotines, thereby undermining Robespierre’s nasty, brutish policy of cutting short his perceived enemies. (A glorification of both nations’ royalty and a lyric that rhymes “revolution” with “execution” let you know where this musical stands on the class struggle.)

Their dandy, dandified leader, Percy, a.k.a. the Scarlet P. (Douglas Sills, bearing soap-opera good looks), learns on his wedding day that his French bride, Marguerite (Amy Bodnar), may be a spy for the new Republican government of France. On hearing that a marquise friend has just been beheaded in Paris, and that rivers of blood are flowing through French streets, Pimp and his associates — dilettante aristocrats by their own admission — are thunderstruck by a moral imperative to take action. (A letter-writing campaign is simply not sufficient to reverse the course of French history, they conclude whimsically.)

And so they transform themselves into eight musketeers — taking biweekly sojourns to the Continent, dressing up in silly costumes — in order to distract and, of course, outwit the French. It is, in short, The Full Monty inverted. Rather than being the story of unemployed English yobs who choose to improve their lives by undressing in public, The Scarlet P. is the story of unemployed English fobs who satisfy their anomie by dressing up.

“Someone has to strike the pose/That is why the Lord created men” goes a lyric. What they really mean is “That is why the Lord created gay men,” but that just doesn’t scan. Indeed, The Scarlet P. is a wisecracking fantasy in the vein of Howard Crabtree’s When Pigs Fly, one that, similarly, sashays in comedically gaudy attire while wearing undergarments streaked with stains of contempt for both women and gays. In this way, it embraces the gay market without losing a larger audience weaned on traditional cultural homophobia and misogyny — a savvy marketing strategy to say the least. This also emblemizes the production’s fatal flaw: It wants to have its tort(e) and eat it too.

In the name of patriotism, P. refuses to bed his wife, thereby testing her patience and loyalty. She’s also left out in the cold by being denied any knowledge of her husband’s secret identity or dealings. Rather, she dangles, emotionally perplexed, sexually frustrated and ripe for the picking when her villainous ex-lover, Chauvelin (William Paul Michals), arrives at her new English home to tempt her erotically and to blackmail her into betraying her Anglo husband for the Franco cause.

Even by 18th-century standards, and even if her husband does suspect her of treason, his pose of willful neglect seems awfully, well, high-skirted — a cruelty that could be easily explained by his being homosexual. But he makes no such explanations, choosing instead to throw out ambiguous clues. First, he confirms such suspicions with his (albeit shamming) public displays of stereotyped behavior: airborne wrists, a penchant for clothes with blinding (though perfectly matched) colors, self-infatuated preening before the mirror, and expressions such as “Sink me!” uttered with a slightly lisping s. Then, when one of P.’s young noblemen admits too eagerly his own enjoyment of dressing up in froufrous, P. quips, “You’re beginning to scare me.” Completing the turnaround by play’s end, P. grows a macho spine — doubtless to inspire the gays in the audience while also assuaging the queer-bashing patrons from El Monte who so regularly show up for musicals at the Ahmanson.

Who wouldn’t be relieved to see P., near the end of Act 2, nobly battling for Marguerite’s life, and she for his. Yes, when she takes up the sword, feminism peeks out from beneath the bustles. It takes her about two and a half hours, but at last she does something more meaningful than impersonate a captivating captive with a glorious soprano.

Douglas Sills burns both ends of the candle in an undeniably brilliant performance, gleefully swishing and strutting, chewing the scenery and spitting it back out, enacting every homo cliché with a twist of mockery. All of which might have made for a theatrically persuasive evening had the creators resolved to leave the parody intact. But no, they choose to go earnest on us, particularly in the music and lyrics:

 

PERCY AND MARGUERITE

“I only want you as you are.”

“Give me your trust.”

“Grow old with me.”

“You make me strong.”

“And in this world of strangers I belong to someone.”

“You are my home!”

 

Imagine a fairly witty lampoon accompanied by three hours of songs by Barry Manilow — ballad after ballad after ballad, crooned with kvelling conviction — and you might get some idea of this toxic brew, for which director Longbottom must also take his share of the responsibility.

That The Scarlet Pimpernel is musically tasteless does not alone account for its failure, though this certainly doesn’t help. The main problem lies with the way the music itself brings on careening shifts of tone from the parodic to the earnest, which, in turn, bring up questions there would otherwise be no reason to raise.

Yes, parody is a forgiving form. It really does allow eight Oxbridge-educated goofballs to walk “into the fire” of a foreign political maelstrom, interfere and walk out unscathed. But the conceit becomes absurd when combined with elements of sincere emotional sentiment . . . the likes of which has just been satirized in a prior scene! I got so annoyed by it all, I found myself rooting for the French.

But what a ravishing spectacle: the sails of a clipper ship unfurling from the top of the proscenium; prison bars that emblematically drop out of the sky; scenes depicting guillotine decapitations that leave audience members gasping, even if there is no spurting blood. In the end, though, the ornate, jaw-dropping design elements, particularly the costumes, emerge as a metaphor for a musical all dressed up with nowhere to go.

THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL | Book and lyrics by NAN KNIGHTON, music by FRANK WILDHORN, directed and choreographed by ROBERT LONGBOTTOM At the AHMANSON THEATER, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | Through June 18


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