2011-02-03 / Dining & Entertainment

Aristocratic superhero delights in Conejo Players’ ‘Scarlet Pimpernel’

Play review
By Cary Ginell

FINESSE—John Gaston and Carolyn Freeman Champ in “The Scarlet Pimpernel.” FINESSE—John Gaston and Carolyn Freeman Champ in “The Scarlet Pimpernel.” “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” a musical, is one of three novelbased Broadway shows using the French Revolution as a backdrop.

The Conejo Players’ production of the musical based on Baroness Emma Orczy’s 1903 book combines stellar voices, excellent acting and costumes ranging from elegant to overthe top in a production that should satisfy the adventurer and romantic in anyone.

If the story appears to be naggingly familiar, it’s because the central character of Percy Blakeney is nothing more than your average disguised superhero, a masked avenger who defies “ unnecessary protocols” like getting permission to interfere in another country’s governmental actions.

Blakeney is more like Batman than any other superhero, a foppish English aristocrat who dons the persona of the “ Scarlet Pimpernel” to thwart the executions by guillotine of those nobles the French revolutionaries deem traitors.

Although the Conejo Players’ cast is uniformly excellent, John Gaston stands out as the noble Percy, brandishing his courage like a saber as he ventures “Into the Fire” with his cohorts. Percy’s Bounders are a sextet of fellow aristocrats whom he convinces to deflect suspicion by acting as prancing prissies garbed in pastel pantaloons. The effect is just short of a Mel Brooks parody on gay stereotypes and almost as funny. As their leader, Gaston flutters about, giving the impression that he is a harmless twit instead of the determined vigilante that he is.

Faced with creating outfits for this gaggle of goofballs, an army of costumers, led by Beth Glasner, designed an outlandish and colorful collection of garish getups for Percy’s merry band of powderpuffs. (As Percy reasons, “If we have to look like Cleopatra, then we will!”) The group displays their outrageous togs in the most delightful musical number of the show, “The Creation of Man.” All they lacked was a Rockettes kick chorus.

The befuddled target of all this infiltration is the evil Citizen Chauvelin, grinningly played by Gary Saxer. “Incessantly dressed” in black (naturally), Chauvelin is an obvious contrast to his more colorful adversaries but presses on with his diabolical purge, as declared in his defining song, “Falcon in the Dive.”

Of course, whenever characters like these meet in the French Revolution, the inevitable swordfight ensues. Not only do Gaston and Saxer engage in convincing swordplay here, but Carolyn Freeman Champ as Blakeney’s bride, Marguerite St. Just, gets her licks in as well. Credit fencing coach Joe Caswell for the dueling derring-dos.

Freeman Champ brings a lovely voice to the proceedings in her duet with Gaston, “When I Look at You,” and her solo, “I’ll Forget You.”

Francis Cabison plays Marguerite’s somewhat befuddled brother. Linda Schaver is Percy’s talented artist friend Marie. Percy’s Bounders are well played by Michael Byrne, John Barker, Derek Foster, Caleb Heulitt, John Eslick and Ricardo Cota, Jr.

The story is compelling enough to overcome a somewhat pedestrian score by Frank Wildhorn and Nan Knighton.

As for the two other swashbucklers based on novels, score points if you named “ Les Misèrables” (1985) and “A Tale of Two Cities” (2008).

The show runs through Sat., Feb. 19. Call (805) 495-3715 or visit www.conejoplayers.org.

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