By Dee Jae Cox
One of the things I absolutely love most about theatre is being completely surprised by the magic of an amazing production and performance. I look forward to those moments when I enter the theatre with a fairly blank slate of expectations and I am swept away by how much I love the show. Such was the case with Palm Canyon Theatre’s, “The Scarlet Pimpernel.”
The Scarlet Pimpernel, with Book and Lyrics by Nan Knighton, Music by Frank Wildhorn, made its Broadway debut in 1997 and is based on the 1905 novel written by Baroness Emma Orczy, (full name: Emma Magdalena Rozália Mária Jozefa Borbála Orczy de Orci. – Say that 10 time real fast.)
The Scarlet Pimpernel is a swashbuckling action/adventure musical, that dramatizes the French Revolution and the country’s battle for liberty and equality. It tells the story of a French actress, Marguerite St. Just, (SE Layne,) who has been forced into some compromising situations in order to survive during this volatile and tragic period in French history. Marguerite, falls in love and marries a dashing English aristocrat by the name of Sir Percival (Percy) Blakeney, (Paul Grant.) They move to London and live happily ever after…. NOT.
After a dear friend is killed in the French war and Percy, suspects Marguerite, may have had a hand in it, newlywed bliss is suddenly in grave jeopardy. Percy realizes that he cannot sit idly by and allow the slaughter that is wrecking mayhem on the French people and so he risks his life to take on the heroic persona of the ‘Scarlet Pimpernel,’ a mysterious and gallant hero who coordinates with the French underground and his own band of Merry English gentleman to secretly travel in and out of France in order to save the innocents from the guillotine. The Scarlet Pimpernel is the name of an iconic flower of England, which Orczy describes as “humble” and modest, and it serves as a metaphor for English restraint and humility.
I have never seen a prop occupy so much focus in a story, but when the guillotine is rolled on to the stage, it is near impossible not to feel the horror of this symbolic cornerstone of the French Revolution. Beginning in 1789, the French Revolution was inspired by the American Revolution, the peasants, the laborers, and the bourgeoisie, (France’s educated middle class,) resented having to pay taxes to support the top 2% of the French population, who were the only ones that had a surplus of food to eat and a voice in how the government worked. The king himself had absolute power granted by God, or so he believed. Seeing the Americans gain their freedom from England, the French people revolted. In a brutal effort to suppress the masses, the use of the guillotine became a common practice.
Paul Grant, as Percy, is so engaging and mesmerizing, that it is near impossible to look away when he takes center stage. His singing is commanding and his disarming, nonchalant persona leaves few who would suspect his true heroic nature. SE Layne, is breathtaking as Marguerite, not just with the elegant costuming and the operatic voice that fills the theatre, Layne embodies the emotional conflict and turmoil of the French actress. Eric Stein-Steele as Chauvelin, the villain whose sadistic drive fueled this powerful story. Stein-Steele, was perfect in his rough and jagged portrayal of a man enflamed by the fire that burned in the heart of this war.
If there is one thing you can count on with any Palm Canyon Theatre production, it is the outstanding talent of the supporting cast. David Brooks as Dewhurst, Virginia Sulick as Marie Grosholtz, Kam Sisco, as Robespierre, and a list of others that filled the stage with song and atmosphere that lingers long after the curtain falls.
Derik Shopenski, directs this awe-inspiring production of the Scarlet Pimpernel, and creates a moving masterpiece as the staging, lighting, singing, dancing and choreography flow in perfect harmony. Mathew McClean and Jackson Enzler’s set, props and stunning visual effects by Nick Edwards along with the most elegant, colorful costumes to grace a stage, created by Shopinski, surround this incredible cast with an authentic cloak of pure magic. The live orchestra, Steven Smith – piano/musical director, Larry Holloway – bass, and David Bronson – drums, filled the senses with their rich tapestry of music.
The folklore of the flower is that by holding the scarlet pimpernel in your hand, it would confer the gift of second sight, and that the plant could give protection from enchantment and spells. Palm Canyon’s Scarlet Pimpernel is one of the most engaging shows I’ve seen. I was completely caught off guard by how captivating this story is and how caught up I was in the characters, the performances and the outcome. There will be no protection from the enchantment and spells cast by this flawless and captivating production.
The Scarlet Pimpernel runs February 10 – March 5, 2023. For ticket information please visit palmcanyontheatre.org or call 760-323-5123.
Dee Jae Cox, is a playwright, director and producer.
Cofounder and Artistic Director of The Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Project. www.losangeleswomenstheatreproject.org
And Co-Creator of the Palm Springs Theatre Go-To-Guide,