Two pieces of scuttlebutt surrounding this crowd-pleasing 1997 musical are neatly dispelled in Performance Riverside's scintillating Southland civic light opera premiere. One often-heard caveat is that the show is problematic, based on the legendary tinkering that occurred during its Broadway run. A harsher claim is that without the original leading man, Douglas Sills, the property fizzles. Just ain't so. When Nan Knighton's book (based on Baroness Emmuska Orczy's 1904 novel) is given a less campy interpretation, it plays surprisingly well—an engaging comedy/adventure vs. the self-parody of Sills' Broadway and touring versions. And the pleasantly traditional score by Frank Wildhorn (music) and Knighton (lyrics)—with its lush ballads, stirring anthems, and lilting melodies—actually works better in this context.
According to the playbill, director/choreographer Grant Rosen based his staging on the original Broadway concepts by Robert Longbottom. And indeed the gorgeous sets (by Andrew Jackness) and sumptuous costumes (by Jane Greenwood) are borrowed from the national tour. Yet there's a shift in tonal emphasis in this rendition, which rests primarily on the shoulders of lead performer Edward Staudenmayer. He's more restrained than Sills was in the characterization of gentleman Percy Blakeney and his heroic alter ego, the Scarlet Pimpernel, a crusader for citizens facing the guillotine during the French Revolution. In a mid-1990s Forbidden Broadway edition, we first observed the gifted Staudenmayer and noted his expertise with an audacious acting style. Here the scenes in which he takes on the effete affectations of a British dandy garner the expected belly laughs, yet his overall take on the role is less self-indulgent than Sills'. Playing it as more of a traditional romantic hero proves to be a viable option, and Staudenmayer's dynamic singing voice further enhances that choice.
Also instrumental to this production's success are the star presence and splendid singing of Broadway veteran Kim Huber, whose performance as the female lead Marguerite rises above the thinly written role. Likewise for Eric Anderson, a commanding presence and sublime vocalist in the role of bloodthirsty villain Chauvelin, who blackmails his ex-flame Marguerite and sets out to topple the Pimpernel's rescue efforts. The ensemble performers sing, dance, and act with aplomb, receiving skillful support from vocal director Don LeMaster, conductor Richard Stover, and choreographer Rosen. Steven Young's storybook lighting effects are charming, and Rick Sordelet's exciting fencing scene is superbly rendered. Rosen keeps the pace snappy and enhances the enchanting physical design with his lovely stage compositions.
Wildhorn (noted for Jekyll and Hyde, portions of Victor/Victoria, and the upcoming Dracula: The Musical) migrated to Broadway songwriting from the pop music arena and is too often denigrated. His Pimpernel score, though not quite a classic, sounds vibrant and rich in this rendition. And Knighton's enjoyable book plays out more tautly than its reputation would suggest. The boisterous applause that followed this delicious staging of an often-beleaguered show sounded very much like a myth exploding.
"The Scarlet Pimpernel," presented by Performance Riverside at Landis Auditorium, 4800 Magnolia Ave., Riverside. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Sept. 21-Oct. 7. $18-26. (909) 222-8100.