The Fullerton Civic Light Opera continues its Frank Wildhorn kick with "The Scarlet Pimpernel," which is a lot more fun than his brooding "Jekyll and Hyde" staged just four months ago.
Much of the credit goes to T. Eric Hart, who was as inviting as a funeral in the lead of "Jekyll and Hyde." This time, however, he's a silly rascal ready to party. Imagine Liberace prancing about after his fifth cup of coffee and you get an inkling of Hart's Sir Percy Blakeney, otherwise known as the Scarlet Pimpernel.
Hart does overdo it, gobbling up everything in his path as the wolf in fop's clothing who battles for the underdog during the French Revolution. But his performance fits the show's tone, as much hootenanny and high jinks as swashbuckling melodrama.
Wildhorn, not known for sending in the clowns, keeps winking playfully at the audience throughout. Though not a great musical, "The Scarlet Pimpernel" is certainly one of the composer's most accessible.
Wildhorn and lyricist Nan Knighton may have used Baroness Emmuska Orczy's 1905 romantic novel as inspiration, but the goal was pure Broadway extravaganza. With moody guillotine scenes, a ball at the Royal Palace and even an English Channel crossing, there's a bounty of opportunities for visual excitement.
Director Jan Hunter, with help from set designer Terry Hanrahan and others, tends to find them without much trouble. Even the florid melody of "Madame Guillotine" seems less intrusive cast against the barbaric contraption raised like a monolith at center stage, eerily illuminated by lighting designer JacquiJones Watson.
This early scene is also the first time we're offered a neat magician's trick suggesting a decapitation that is more surprising than grisly.
Everything shifts to romance soon after, when the love between Sir Percy and Marguerite (Melissa Walters) grows, then falters.
A more lighthearted pitch takes over eventually, especially with "The Creation of Man," as Sir Percy and his gang of evil-fighters disguised as snobs flounce around in Sharell Martin's ticklishly imaginative costumes.
Though Hart gets to do most of the preening, it's Walters who really beautifies everything. Her Marguerite is a comely mademoiselle with a past, mostly tied to a tricky affair with the murderous Chauvelin (Eric Anderson), Robespierre's henchman. Walters doesn't give many clues to Marguerite's motivations for this dalliance, which seems almost irrelevant when she starts singing.
"When I Look at You" is, like most of Wildhorn's ballads, more pop than passion, but as performed by Walters, it's still the evening's prettiest moment.
"The Scarlet Pimpernel," Fullerton Civic Light Opera, Plummer Auditorium, 201 E. Chapman Ave. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m.; Feb. 24, 7 p.m.; and March 2, 2 p.m. $16 to $40. Ends March 3. (714) 879-1732.