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The Scarlet Pimpernel: A unique mix of suspense, drama and laughter at Engeman

What do you get when you combine English nobility, angry Frenchmen, power ballads, ruffled man-shirts, corsets and fear of the guillotine?

The Scarlet Pimpernel at the John Engeman Theater is a unique combination of suspense, heroism and on-cue flamboyancy that make way for moments of awe, laughter and curiosity. At the end of last weekend’s opening performance, Tony Award-nominated Broadway star Terrence Mann made a surprise appearance on stage, praising the actors for their talents and the audience for their support of the arts. Mann originated the role of Chauvelin in The Scarlet Pimpernel on Broadway in 1997.

“I think I have walked into magic land because it only takes three things – the music, a cast like this, and the audience,” he said, standing alongside the show’s performers.

The cast, who knew of Mann’s presence at the Saturday evening show, were nervously excited. The energy in the theater felt electric throughout the performance, and ended with loud cheers and a standing ovation.

The Scarlet Pimpernel highlights the terror of the French Revolution and the vastly different impact it has on three individuals. It was written as a play in 1903 and cited as the first time a fictional character adopted a secret identity.

Percy Blakeney, a clever English nobleman played by Christopher Behmke, is determined to save innocent citizens from the guillotine. After learning of his friend’s murder, which he believes to be of his own wife’s doing, he takes on the identity of the “Scarlet Pimpernel” and convinces his friends, a group of well-meaning but semi-dimwitted gentlemen, to join him.

The band of friends throw off suspicions of their efforts in France with flamboyant antics, suggesting to the soldiers of the revolution that they are nothing but silk- and lace-loving “nincompoops.” The friends offered comedic relief that was unexpected in a sword-fighting musical adventure, igniting laughter throughout the show.

Marguerite St. Just, a French woman and wife to Percy, is played by the flawless Arianne Davidow. She questions the quick-changing personality of her new husband, who suspects her of being supportive of the revolution’s brutality and has avoided her presence since their wedding night. Marguerite’s fierce and passionate energy is portrayed in songs like “When I Look at You,” as she navigates the unsettled world around her while trying to hold onto the people she loves most – Percy and her brother, Armand.

Villain and avid head-chopper, Citizen Chauvelin, played by Nate Hackmann, has a dark and dangerous presence, with his all-black attire, deep voice and piercing blue eyes. His romantic past with Marguerite and determination to find the true identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel sets the scene for a suspenseful and sensuous love (mixed with hate) triangle.

While the surprisingly funny moments of the play and mysterious plot twists kept the audience on the edge of their seats, the vocals among all three lead performers were awe-inspiring. The guttural performance of “Prayer,” the first solo number by Behmke, sparked a mid-show ovation.

The costumes were lavish, fun and romantic, especially those worn by Marguerite, who donned lace-up leather boots and corsets in every scene. Her outfits portrayed the juxtaposition of her seductive and scrappy life in France and her gentry existence in England, highlighting her inner conflict with her past and uncertain future.

If you’re looking for a mixture of adventure, suspense and joy, with audience members covering their eyes from the guillotine in one scene, and laughing joyfully in the next, don’t miss The Scarlet Pimpernel at the Engeman.

To close with the words of Terrence Mann on opening night, “Everybody who does this for a living – musical theater – just keeps getting so much better and so much more committed than we were, when we did it. And I’m always just so impressed and so amazed.”

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