REVIEW: Oakland University Delivers Adventure and Amusement with ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’

Outside, the leaves are changing and there’s a hint of winter whispering in the winds. But inside the Varner Studio Theatre on Sunday, the air was charged with passion and heroism as the Oakland University Music, Theatre and Dance Department presented their first production of the 2016-2017 season, The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Maria Reed as Marguerite St. Just and Ian Turnwald as Percy Blakeney in Oakland University's production of 'The Scarlet Pimpernel' Photo credit: JL Boone Photography

Maria Reed as Marguerite St. Just and Ian Turnwald as Percy Blakeney in Oakland University’s production of ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’
Photo credit: JL Boone Photography

Set against the backdrop of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, the play is based on the 1905 novel written by Baroness Emma Orczy. It features music by composer Frank Wildhorn, with book and lyrics by Nan Knighton. For OU’s production, Fred Love takes the reins as director and musical staging, along with musical directors Alissa Hetzner and Paul McCaffrey. Filled with sword fights and daring rescues, the protagonist Sir Percy Blakeney* (Ian Turnwald) finds himself evolving from a foppish English aristocrat to a leader of an unlikely group of men (the Bounders) who are committed to rescuing their French counterparts from ‘Madame Guillotine.’ From this secret group emerges the mysterious hero the Scarlet Pimpernel whom the villainous Chauvelin (Alex Benoit) is determined to unmask. A hero with a secret identity? Sounds like long before Marvel mastermind Stan Lee was writing about Iron Man and Captain America, Orczy created the blueprint for the hero/secret identity mythos.

Ian Turnwald as Percy Blakeney Photo credit: JL Boooone Photography Director and Musical Staging: Fred Love Musical Directors: Alissa Hetzner & Paul McCaffrey Choreographer: Joey Fontana Costume Designer: Christa Koerner Lighting Designer: Kerro Knox 3 Hair & Makeup Designers: Katie Person & Alexander Alonzo Johnson

Ian Turnwald as Percy Blakeney
Photo credit: JL Boone Photography

This was not my first time seeing a stage production of The Scarlet Pimpernel, but it was my first time seeing it in the round, which I am now convinced is the best way to enjoy it. Why? Because it creates an intimate atmosphere with the audience and allows the actors and production to stretch beyond conventional boundaries. Everything is exposed, leaving nowhere to hide, literally and artistically, and lucky for those attending the production team seems to have mastered the challenge beautifully. By keeping the staging minimal, it allows the actors to shine the brightest without unnecessary distractions. They don’t rely heavily on props or gimmicks, but rather the commanding talent they bring with each entrance. In addition, part of the stage rotates, which opens up even more opportunities for interaction and accessibility with each other and the audience. This was especially impressive during the dance numbers. Another plus for this setting is that you can clearly hear the dialogue. Many times during the musical numbers I felt as if I was listening to my favorite CD in a state-of-the-art surround sound system. The tones were so rich and filled the space beautifully. It was fun to be able to pick out the different parts being sung during the ensemble numbers. In my opinion, these university students exhibited the kind of talent that would rival any Broadway or touring cast.

Alex Benoit as Chauvelin and Maria Reed as Marguerite St. Just share a tense moment. Photo credit: JL Boone Photography

Alex Benoit as Chauvelin and Maria Reed as Marguerite St. Just share a tense moment.
Photo credit: JL Boone Photography

The songs swing from tender ballads (“Prayer”) to rousing call to arms (“Into the Fire”). There’s even a bit of humor and mischief found in the number “The Creation of Man” sung with vim by Percy and the Bounders. Not only is the song fantastic, but hat’s off to the costume design team for creating outfits that looked like something Johnny Depp’s The Mad Hatter would proudly wear. In the role of Marguerite St. Just, Maria Reed provided many of the vocal highlights throughout the show, such as the passionate tune, “When I Look at You.” But it was Alex Benoit, the dastardly villain Chauvelin who stole the show. I wanted to hate him, but every line he sang and spoke drew me in and held my attention. He reminded me a bit of Andrew Scott’s Moriarty in the BBC’s Sherlock. You know you should loathe him, and yet you can’t. The depth with which Benoit plays his part is mesmerizing and no song was his passion more evident than on “Falcon in the Dive.”

While the story does touch on themes that as a society we are still dealing with today, there are plenty of comic moments to balance out any gravity, and the audience was more than happy to oblige and give the actors their due in those moments. If you are one of those who find theatre inaccessible because of high prices or distance, I would recommend taking advantage of the high-caliber talent that exists in our community by attending one of these remaining performances:

Wednesday, October 12, 2016 at 8 p.m.
Thursday, October 13, 2016 at 8 p.m.
Friday, October 14, 2016 at 8 p.m.
Saturday, October 15, 2016 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Sunday, October 16, 2016 at 2 p.m.

Prices are $20 general admission, $12 students and 10 a.m. matinee

The play runs approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.

*The parts of Percy Blakeney, Marguerite St. Just, and Chauvelin are alternately played by Billy Eric Robinson, Maggie Hinckley, and William Raveau on October 13, 15 (8 p.m.), and 16 performance dates.

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About Sarah Hovis

Word manipulator, arts appreciator, sports spectator, and world traveler, Sarah charts her own course as the owner of saliho creative. She uses her creative mind and engaging dialogue to fearlessly bring the written word to life in print and online… all while keeping a watchful eye out for the next literary adventure. You can reach her at sarah@rochestermedia.com.

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