Some musicals are so bad, they’re enjoyable. It’s why I enjoyed the camp of Jekyll & Hyde , in which the star, Robert Cuccioli, performs both Jekyll and Hyde with his hair.
When he transforms into Jekyll, he tosses his hair one way, and when he transforms into Hyde, he tosses it the other. Sometimes, he alternates his hair tossing with such dazzling élan that you can’t be certain whether he’s Jekyll or whether he’s Hyde. Or whether he’s just having a bad hair day. But it’s riveting whichever way you look at it.
Alas, The Scarlet Pimpernel , the musical, is bad in the wrong way. It’s too bad. Frank (“This Is My Moment”) Wildhorn, the composer of both Pimpernel and Jekyll and Hyde , is really bad. He’s a specialist in skating music who writes big, bland emotional ballads to triple-toe loop to. He numbs us with his limited repertoire of Loud, Surge and Throb while reprising his theme of double identities-the monster within the Hyde, the fop within the Pimp. If only he had thought of the phantom within the opera.
Baroness Emmuska Orczy’s 1905 novel has been through several reincarnations, including a cartoon entitled The Scarlet Pumpernickel , starring Daffy Duck. It was more of an exotic romance in the tradition of Danielle Steel than the swashbuckling classic 1935 movie with Leslie Howard suggests. Until the current musical version, however, I hadn’t appreciated that the piece might also be a parody of gay fashion freaks.
The languid aristocrat, Sir Percy Blakeney, better known as the daredevil Scarlet Pimpernel who secretly rescues victims of the French Revolution, pretends to be a fop mincing about the place to avoid suspicion. His beloved wife, Marguerite, a pert Frenchwoman with a past, is surprised. As she puts it in the musical: “Ee eezn’t ooh I zought ‘ee waz.” And as camped up by the pleasant Douglas Sills in his Broadway debut, ‘ee certainly eezn’t.
The Frenchies in the show are performed with accents that are a tribute to Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau. Zey spick like zees, except when they forget. When they forget to spick like zees, or can’t be bothered, we have a problem deciding who’s French or who’s English, unless they’re American. The muddled opening number, entitled “Madame Guillotine,” I took to be French. Some poor soul was being guillotined by either Inspector Clouseau or Maurice Chevalier. The usual suspects-overmiked angry peasants left behind by a touring company of Les Misérables -were screaming and shouting to searing skating music. “I know the gutter, and I know the stink of the streets!”
Do they, indeed? I doubt it. “God, can you feel the terror, like a fire in the air!” The book and lyrics by Nan Knighton give us hope of many secret pleasures that can make the bad enjoyable. The Harvard-educated Ms. Knighton even takes almost three hours to set up a truly terrible joke about Madame Tussaud. That’s my girl! And so is this. “Where’s the girl who could turn on the edge of a knife/ Where’s the girl who was burning for life?”
I can tell you. She’s writing the lyrics for The Scarlet Pimpernel . She’s the one with fire in the air who’s burning for life. “This fragile world of ours/ Spins us off into the storm/ Hold onto me/ And I’ll be warm.” Are you surprised? The lyrics for “Vivez,” the giddy bridal-night duet between Sir Percy and the ex-slut Marguerite, are almost as good. “You have one life, let it be gay!” It sort of rhymes with vivez , you see-as does have a nice day, every which way, bouquet and oy vey!
Such pleasures, however, are regrettably fewer than we had hoped. Terrence Mann, who was the original evil police inspector Javert in Les Misérables , as well as the original Beast in Beauty and the Beast , is evil Chauvelin, the Beast of the Guillotine in The Scarlet Pimpernel . Do we sense typecasting? Mr. Mann, who is rumored to be half alive, is a little wooden. Christine Andreas’ Marguerite is a little Edith Piaf. Douglas Sills’ Pimpernel is a little overeager, his Sir Percy over the fop. There are other perversely pleasant distractions. In the fleeing horse-and-carriage scene, I could see a stagehand behind the curtain frantically shaking the carriage to create the impression it was bouncing over the cobblestones of Paris.
Nice try. But the awesome badness of Pimp , which has been badly directed by Peter Hunt, and badly designed by his creative team, leaves us not entertained, not even campily pained, but numb. In the dispiriting end, this ill-conceived, ill-chosen musical amounts to a harmless cartoon, I guess, like watching a provincial touring company doing its well-meaning, second-rate stuff. Zee rest eez strictly for zee birds.