In the touring "The Scarlet Pimpernel" at Orange County Performing Arts Center, the fact that Ron Bohmer's campy Sir Percy is basically a carbon copy of the flighty aristocrat created on Broadway by Douglas Sills doesn't hurt the show much.
What's troubling is the sole difference between them. Whereas Sills seemed to live the role (at L.A.'s Ahmanson Theatre as well as on Broadway), Bohmer appears to be wearing it like a costume. For "Pimpernel" to work even at its simplistic level, it has to be real and honest, and too much of the time we can see Bohmer's technique at work.
Frank Wildhorn's music, sometimes impressively soaring, rarely finds a strong melody, and Nan Knighton's book and lyrics have little of the adventure, excitement or high style of Baroness Orczy's novel or the several film versions. These are formidable hurdles for a performer, especially because this version is basically a one-person show. If Sir Percy isn't true, neither is the story.
When Percy isn't the dashing Scarlet Pimpernel, saving aristocrats during the French Revolution, he cloaks his identity by becoming an effete "toff," reveling in outlandish clothes and even more outlandish conversation. Unfortunately, in our highly unstylish era, the result is not one of exaggerated high style but a sometimes funny sendup of a stereotypically campy gay man, who hasn't consummated his marriage to the lovely actress Marguerite St. Juste because of his orientation, not because he discovered her seemingly treacherous behavior.
It's a fine line they're treading, and Bohmer almost makes it believable in the second act. But his failure to keep one foot in reality earlier remains in the memory.
Bohmer followed Sills in the role on Broadway, where his Marguerite was Amy Bodnar, who reprises the role here. She's effective as the famous French actress on stage, though she's sometimes a bit strident vocally and in her gentler scenes with Percy. She also appears to be wearing the role instead of living in it.
Better by far are Billy Sharpe as Marguerite's enthusiastic but bumbling brother Armand and Jennifer Zimmerman as the artist-costume designer whom we later find out has married and become the famous Madame Tussaud. They live inside their roles. Peter Kapetan also has some good moments in the theatrical conceit of playing both Robespierre and the Prince of Wales.
The highlight of this company is William Michals' sleazy villain Chauvelin, who retains some power over Marguerite, and lusts after the identity of the Pimpernel. Michals' performance is etched in acid, and vocally he walks away with all honors for his ability to make his arias sound like more than they are.
* "The Scarlet Pimpernel," Segerstrom Hall, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Today-Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Ends Sunday. $20-$55. (213) 365-3500 or (714) 740-7878. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.
Amy Bodnar: Marguerite
William Michals: Chauvelin
Ron Bohmer: Percy
Billy Sharpe: Armand
Jennifer Zimmerman: Marie
Peter Kapetan: Robespierre/Prince of Wales
A Broadway Series presentation of a Radio City Entertainment and Ted Forstmann production of the musical adaptation of Baroness Orczy's novel by Nan Knighton and Frank Wildhorn. Directed and choreographed by Robert Longbottom. Musical director Douglas Coates. Sets by Andrew Jackness. Lighting by Natasha Katz. Costumes by Jane Greenwood. Sound by Karl Richardson. Special effects by Jim Steinmeyer. Production stage manager Harold Goldfaden.