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Chris Alan Hall and Bruce Grossman go sword-to-sword in
The Scarlet Pimpernel at Theatre Three
I don't care what anybody says: I like The Scarlet Pimpernel. Frank Wildhorn and Nan Knighton's 1997 musical, based on Baroness Orczy's famed novels, played in no fewer than three versions on Broadway; none were particularly successful at the box-office and the final version shuttered in 2000. But even though Wildhorn and Knighton -- he with the relentless pop sound of his music and she with her unremarkable lyrics -- are not the most stellar songwriting team in musical theater, they may have been just right for the task of musicalizing Orczy's French Revolution-era tale of the adventures of Sir Percy Blakeney. The created a spirited adaptation that is at once campy, lovey-dovey, and full of derring-do.

Clayton Phillips, directing Pimpernel in its third and final version as his inaugural production as the new artistic director of Port Jefferson's Theatre Three, keeps the show light on its feet, aiding the story as it leaps from romance to intrigue. Phillips doesn't do much to alleviate the script's troubles -- namely, a handful of blink-and-you-miss-'em key plot points -- but he handles the more intimate moments with care and is especially adept at moving the large ensemble around in energetic numbers like "Madame Guillotine" and "Into the Fire."

As Percy, an English fop by day and a hero to persecuted French citizens by night, Chris Alan Hall rarely gets the laughs that the script affords, though he tries gamely. What he offers instead is a dashing portrait of a romantic hero. Hall brings intelligence and soul to the role, and he sings powerfully, bringing out nuances in the crucial soliloquy "Prayer" and even managing to make the rather bland "She Was There" a showstopper. He is ably assisted by the wonderful group of men playing "the bounders," Percy's fellow aristocrats, who aid him in his plan to save people from the guillotine.

Jenny Collester is fine as Marguerite St. Just, Percy's newlywed wife, who is shunned by her husband because he believes her to be an agent of the very Reign of Terror that he is fighting against. It's actually a rather thin role, but Collester has a lovely voice (she sounds especially good in "When I Look At You" and the "You Are My Home" duet with Percy), and she projects strength beneath the hurt and bewilderment that the character feels due to Percy's neglect. Bruce Grossman, as Chauvelin, is the pointy end of their love triangle; while Grossman has a great voice that does justice to his big ballads ("Falcon in the Dive," "Where's the Girl?"), his efforts are undermined by his shallow interpretation of the French idealist-turned-terrorizer. Furthermore, as the show progresses, Grossman resorts to inexplicable posturing and hamminess that is completely at odds with the character.

The singers are accompanied by a nine-piece band -- including musical director Ellen Michelmore on keyboards -- that, sadly, lacks a string section. Still, the horns, woodwinds, and percussion on hand play a nice, streamlined version of Kim Scharnberg's original orchestrations and, happily, keep Wildhorn's score sounding more like Broadway than pop.

Jenny Collester and Chris Alan Hall
as Marguerite and Percy
Pimpernel is a flashy story that merits a flashy production. Theatre Three doesn't have the budget for big sets, but scenic designer Randall Parsons has found a way to create a ship onstage in short order, while costume designers Brent Erlanson and Bonnie Vidal evoke the era with smart outfits and some excellent wigs. These efforts are impressive and, for the most part, effective, even if they are not enough to give the show the slick look that it craves.

Wildhorn's score is the main reason why modest companies like Theatre Three can get away with producing a show that is more about shine than substance. From the tuneful "Storybook" to the tension-filled cliffhanger "The Riddle," from the overture to the silly sounding "They Seek Him Here," this music sets and maintains the tone of playful melodrama that makes The Scarlet Pimpernel work. And Knighton has written a book that, though flawed, plays very well in the hands of a skilled cast and director.

With a fantastic band, an able design team, a wonderful leading man and several fine supporting players, Theatre Three comes close to realizing the show's potential. Despite this production's flaws, it offers much in the way of light-hearted adventure, melodrama, romance, song, and fun.

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