Anyone who hasn’t made the trek to downtown Magna to visit the Historic Empress Theatre (nearly 100 years old) will be pleasantly surprised with this little community theatre tucked in the heart of the quaint town next to the Copper Mines. The Empress is the true essence of “community theatre”. Full of heart and a staff of volunteers made up of locals and natives of the area that love their little theatre. The Empress operates on a shoestring budget and this limits a lot of the technical capabilities, costuming, etc. But the many volunteers compensate for this with late hours and sacrifice to pull off ambitious shows with their limited resources.
Now on to the show— The Scarlet Pimpernel takes place during the reign of terror during the French Revolution and follows the story of Sir Percy, a wealthy English baronet who rescues individuals sentenced to death at the guillotine. With each rescue he taunts his enemies by leaving behind a card showing a small flower—a scarlet pimpernel. The identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel becomes a topic of widespread popular interest and the hero himself becomes the subject of an international manhunt by the French revolutionary authorities. To hide his true identity, Sir Percy presents himself in everyday life as a “fop”, who cares only for wearing the latest fashions, speaks little French and takes no notice of world affairs. His secret is kept by a band of friends known as “the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel.” The league operates as an undercover team in enacting Sir Percy’s rescue plans.
The role of Percy/The Scarlet Pimpernel (Curtis Nash) carries the show and requires an actor of the utmost skill as he is essentially performing four distinct parts throughout the play: Percy (the romantic, strong willed, and decisive leader) that woos Marguerite; then Percy (the “nincompoop and fop”) who disguises himself as an effeminate wimp that is obsessed with fashion; then the heroic and courageous Scarlet Pimpernel that leads his men in battle; and then finally disguised as the French Spy. Curtis Nash is a very talented actor and a master of wit and comedy and I would say that he very successfully executed 3 of the 4 roles that he had to play. His many comedic scenes as the effeminate and flamboyant Percy he delivered with expert precision—he had the audience rolling and applauding. He was especially entertaining in his interactions with Chauvelin, who he refers to as “shev-lynn”. As the courageous leader, Nash also was successful. The reprise of “Into the Fire” towards the end of Act II was one of his strongest scenes of the show. He really led his men with passion and unified them in a higher cause. And as the French spy, Nash also performed very well. I have to admit that with his costuming and choice of accent, I did not immediate recognize Nash as the spy (as its been a while since I have seen the show I didn’t remember at first that Percy was in disguise). That alone validates Nash’s success in portrayal with an effective disguise and accent. I would have liked to see a greater depth in his relationship with his wife Marguerite. I wanted to see greater chemistry and a dimensional portrayal (especially in the beginning scenes leading up to their marriage). I wanted to see the couple madly in love and understand what Percy saw in Marguerite and vice-versa. This is needed to create greater contrast when Percy does become the Scarlet Pimpernel and his conflict when he believes that his wife has betrayed him. But I did not see this relationship in the beginning and therefore it didn’t make the transition as powerful or clear when he became “Percy the fop”. Nash has a strong voice and had great moments with many of his songs. A few notes were a little “pitchy”, but this may have been due to the sound and hearing the music. He was especially successful with “She Was There” and “Creation of Man”.
I also enjoyed watching Percy’s band of aristocrats. They were very committed and provided some great scenes. They functioned well as a group and had great energy between them. Some stand out performances include: Josh Astle as Hal (he was always so committed to each of his choices and was very believable), Steven Cundick as Ozzy (he provided the right balance between being a fop, though transitioning into the courageous band of The Scarlet Pimpernel), and Logan Gifford (he had some great moments as he didn’t play for laughs but delivered them in a grounded manner that made them that much funnier).
Chauvelin (Brian Douros) had a great look for the part and provided a perfect contrast to Percy. He had some nice moments and a very powerful voice. In his “Where’s the Girl?” (Reprise) his voice soared in the final notes with power. He had some hilarious reactions to Percy and some of the scenes with he and Percy interacting were extremely entertaining. However, I don’t feel he was as grounded as he could be in the part. There was a lot of shouting and a few melodramatic moments. I would have liked to see him explore a wider variety of tactics and explore the subtlety in the character. His shouting and big moments would have worked better if there was more of a build and shape to the scenes leading up to them. I also didn’t see the relationship or chemistry between him and Marguerite fully developed. I wanted a little more risk, a little more danger, coupled with some sensuality (particularly in the scene where he kisses Marguerite after she is married, I wanted him to go further and not hold back).
A few other characters that need mentioning include: Marie Grosholtz (Joni Waldrop) played a believable and loyal friend; and Robespierre (Robbi O’Kelley) is generally played by a male however I liked this casting choice and Robbi played the part with heartless guile quick to use the guillotine to maintain her control.
The sets were were simple, but they fulfilled the purpose and director Jake Andersen did a nice job of utilizing the space throughout the theater to stage the various scenes. Jake also did a good job of blocking the large ensemble and creating levels and pictures. I liked his concept of starting and end the show as if it is was coming out of a storybook, with opening the front cover of the book for the opening scene and at the end of the show closing the book (it lent itself well to the song “Storybook” at the beginning of the show).
The costumes generally worked. They were simple but effective in creating time period and place. I would have liked to see wigs for the noblemen and the upper class members of society, but I understand the costs and challenge that adding this presents.
The biggest disappointment of the show was Marguerite St. Just (Megan Cundick). I found her portrayal to be very shallow and surface level acting, reminding me of a character from the opera or operetta world. Lots of mugging, over-acting physicality, and she played a state of being rather than making real choices and discoveries in her many ballads. Her accent was very inconsistent; especially in her singing she would often slip in and out of an American accent, and didn’t have the vocal power needed for the challenging “belt” numbers. I failed to see the chemistry between her and Chauvelin and her and Percy, which is critical in establishing the love triangle between them. This lack of chemistry really hurt her relationship with the two male leads and made her very flat. I wanted much more from her and to see her take greater risks.
Marguerite’s brother Armand St. Just (Colin Doxey) had some nice scenes with Percy but really struggled vocally with his duet “You Are My Home”.
The ensemble incorporated a lot of newcomers and community members. It is great that the Empress is giving a lot of locals experience on stage. They seemed to have a lot of fun, but they lacked the believability and commitment needed to effectively execute the many parts they played throughout the piece. In general, creating real characters and making choices within the world of the character that they selected would have helped make them more believable and real people rather than “cartoonish characters”, this was especially evident in some of the “fight scenes”.
A few elements of the show that didn’t work as well were first the choreography (primarily the large ensemble numbers). The dancing seemed to lack motivation and didn’t organically flow or mesh with the scenes. Rather it seemed separated and reminiscent of a high school show choir. At times, some of the blocking suffered from this same problem, a disconnect from the material—rather than moving with purpose it looked like blocking because that is where they
were told to stand or move. Or at certain times they needed to open up to the other side of the audience, so rather than motivate the movement they just moved to their mark. In the next step of the Empress’s development, strengthening and grounding the ensemble will enhance their productions.
And the other element that was lacking was the sound and microphones. I again recognize the limitations that the Empress has with their sound system and I respect the efforts made to make it work. However, the mix between sound and voices failed to blend. Often the music overpowered the voices. Other times the music was too soft and caused the singers to get off from the music or get off pitch. During one of the songs it seemed that the wrong “karaoke track” was played, with the example voice playing instead of the minus track. Hopefully this can be improved with the following performances and working out the opening night snags.
The Empress has a friendly and supportive staff and the cast is working hard and giving their all. Though the show has a few struggles, it also has some great moments as well. It will be an entertaining evening full of laughs and some great music. The trek to Magna isn’t that bad. A 15- minute commute from downtown Salt Lake is all it will take. Don’t miss The Scarlet Pimpernel; it is a great story with a committed cast and crew! And has become a Utah favorite by its frequent staging by theatres throughout the state.
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