SANDY — Which masked hero smuggles innocents from danger, hides behind the alias of a privileged playboy, disguises his alter ego even from his true love and routinely leaves a calling card?
Long before Batman, Superman or even Zorro, there was the Scarlet Pimpernel — the precursor to the superhero genre that deserves his due. Sandy’s Hale Centre Theatre is happy to oblige with its upcoming presentation of the Tony-nominated musical, "The Scarlet Pimpernel," Sept.17-Nov. 24.
“It may be the closest I ever come to playing a superhero,” said Daniel Beck, who plays the dual role of Sir Percy Blakeney and his moonlighting alter ego, the courageous Pimpernel, in the Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday cast. “Really, he’s just a regular guy trying to do what’s right. He doesn’t have a Batmobile, 'just a sword and his wits,'” Beck said, borrowing a line from the musical.
Based on Baroness Emma Orczy’s 1905 novel, the musical features the fictional 18th-century exploits of Sir Percy Blakeney, who pretends to be a fashion-obsessed British dandy while secretly rescuing French aristocrats doomed for the guillotine during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror.
Behind Percy's witless, foppish disguise, the truly fearless Pimpernel remains just outside the clutches of Chauvelin, a firebrand agent of the French republican revolutionaries. With each rescue, Pimpernel leaves behind his calling card to further infuriate the agent: a simple red flower identified as the scarlet pimpernel.
“It takes on serious subject matter, a time when people were being beheaded just on hearsay so that nobody felt safe,” Beck said. Yet unlike the megahit "Les Miserables," based on Victor Hugo's French masterpiece, Beck insisted this musical has an entirely different feel. “It’s really funny at its core because Sir Percy and his swashbuckling band of aristocrats hide behind this over-the-top ‘useless dilettante’ facade.”
Two of Beck’s favorite scenes especially illustrate the duplicitous situation. One minute, Sir Percy’s comrades are gathering courage with the decision to risk their necks during the stirring ballad “Into the Fire,” yet instead of brandishing armor or swords in the following scene, they must brandish their disguises. Thus, they tumble onto the stage dressed as dandies, preening lavishly at the Prince of Wales' court, where they’ve been summoned on suspicion.
“That’s when Pimpernel and his men sing ‘The Creation of Man,’ which is one of the most delicious moments,” Beck said. “It’s hysterical and the costumes are beyond description.”
With music from Frank Wildhorn and the book by Nan Knighton, this nearly sold-out Hale Centre Theatre show with 75 consecutive performances is produced by HCT Vice President and Executive Producer Sally Dietlein and directed by John J. Sweeney. The company confirms that "The Scarlet Pimpernel" is one of the most requested shows it has ever produced, with past productions in 2002, 2004 and 2009.
“I couldn’t resist auditioning for the role of Sir Percy one more time when I heard it was being performed in the new theater,” said Beck who played the role in 2002 and 2004. The added space and advanced technology in the new Sandy venue, which opened last year, has allowed for the creation of a 23-foot guillotine and three-tiered carousel, among other effects.
While saving necks from the blade of "Madame Guillotine" is central to the story, "The Scarlet Pimpernel" also shines for its dramatic love triangle. At its center is Sir Percy’s new wife, Marguerite St. Just, played in the Monday/Wednesday/Friday cast by Amy Shreeve Keeler.
“The challenge in playing Marguerite is her turmoil. She is swept off her feet by this perfect man and marries him six weeks later,” Keeler said. “Then out of nowhere, he completely changes and grows instantly cold to her and she has no idea why.”
The about-face occurs on their wedding night when Sir Percy is led to believe —falsely — that his new bride has betrayed him. And when the death of a dear friend spurs him to heroic but dangerous action, he chooses to withhold the truth of his moonlighting activities from his new bride, whom he believes may be conspiring with the enemy.
Meanwhile, as gallant tales of the Pimpernel pepper English society’s every conversation, a now-lonely Marguerite becomes more and more fascinated by the mysterious Pimpernel. Thus, threads of love lost and then found are slowly weaved into a dramatic love story as revelations unfurl between the couple.
So move over Batman, there’s a new superhero in town. He may be donning silk stockings, breeches, lace collars and powdered wigs, but he’s no stranger to intrigue, outwitting his opponent, espionage and secret identities.
If you go …
What: Hale Centre Theatre’s “The Scarlet Pimpernel”
When: Sept. 17-Nov. 24, Monday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Saturday matinees, 12:30 p.m. and 4 p.m.
Where: Centre Stage Theatre, 9900 S. Monroe St., Sandy
How much: $20 for children, $40 for adults, no children under 5