Theater Reviews: More literature into plays: How novel!

Scarlet Pimpernel: Courtesy of the As Yet Unnamed Theatre Co.    Jennifer Poliskie and Edward Adamson star in The As Yet Unnamed Theatre Company’s “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” showing at the MeX Theater through Sunday.

Scarlet Pimpernel: Courtesy of the As Yet Unnamed Theatre Co. Jennifer Poliskie and Edward Adamson star in The As Yet Unnamed Theatre Company’s “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” showing at the MeX Theater through Sunday.

It seems local theater-goers and other arts audiences (case in point: Louisville Orchestra’s upcoming presentation of music from “The Lord of the Rings” films) are being served adaptations of classic novels at a rather significant rate these days. Is it because people respond favorably to the universal themes in the canon? Or are these watered-down Cliff Notes versions easier to swallow?

I’m not complaining, mind you — just musing as to what it all means. Certainly, there are many local troupes willing to take chances with modern theater, and I’m not picking on any group in particular. In fact, I loved “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” and will probably see it again. I’d just like to see more original dramatic works that are made specifically for the stage, without being squeezed into its singular format.

‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’
The musical version of the classic story “The Scarlet Pimpernel” doesn’t disappoint in its presentation by (the still) As Yet Unnamed Theatre Company, in its 10th season opener. Even if you’re unfamiliar with (and who is?) the original book by Baroness Emmuska Orczy, the action and flow of this production will quickly suck you into its French Revolution milieu.

During the “Reign of Terror” — a brief but chaotic time in French history — civil liberties were ignored and political executions by guillotine were commonplace. Our hero, wealthy aristocrat Percy Blakeney (Edward Adamson), is horrified to realize that the atrocities have cost him a close friend and tarnished his marriage. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and Percy concludes that the most logical response is to take on a Zorro-like masked superhero identity: “The Scarlet Pimpernel”! (A pimpernel, incidentally, is a type of flower, and has little to do with the Scarlet Pumpernickel, which was Daffy Duck’s alter ego in a 1954 Warner Bros. cartoon.) Percy and his merry men — and boy, are they merry! — sail back and forth to France, rescuing people from “Madame Guillotine.”

Despite its serious setting, many comedic moments ensue, involving disguises, identity mix-ups and rousing musical numbers that evoke “Twelfth Night.” In the opening, Marguerite (Jennifer Poliskie) is performing her swan song at the Comédie Française in a pastry-like gown that shows off her charms, before leaving turbulent France for the safety of England with her new husband, Percy. Poliskie doesn’t just sing — she conveys deep emotion with her facial expressions. Her voice is at its peak, however, in the haunting duets with the men in Marguerite’s life — Percy, the wicked Chauvelin (Gary Tipton) and her brave brother, Armand (Herschel Zahnd III).

Tipton and Adamson are perfectly cast as darkness and light. Tipton is especially menacing as the cruel French “citizen” extolling the virtues of capital punishment in the scary song “Madame Guillotine.” But it is Adamson who steals the show, whether prancing as the foppish aristocrat, brandishing a sword or limping as a spy among Chauvelin’s men. Percy and his men are not to be missed camping it up in “The Creation of Man” as their hankies flail, expertly choreographed by the director Sandy Richens Cohrs. The near-capacity audience at opening night certainly loved it. Percy deftly leads the group in the sly song “They Seek,” about the puzzle everyone’s trying to solve — just who is the Scarlet Pimpernel?

Given the rather restricted space (the MeX is the smallest of the Kentucky Center’s venues), the cast manages to be quite kinetic and keep the proceedings action-packed. You won’t miss a beat in this intimate setting. The only distraction was the cheesy synthesizer playing over the loudspeaker to accompany the actors’ singing. At times, the music was louder than the vocalists, and I’d much rather hear them.

‘Narnia’ (preview)
“Narnia” is a musical version of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” a children’s allegory of Christ’s crucifixion. Four children escape from Europe during World War II and settle with elderly Professor Diggery (Ryan Metzger). Lucy, the youngest, climbs into a wardrobe and is led to Narnia, a snow-covered land ruled by the White Witch, who loves cold weather. “Always winter, but never Christmas, think of that!”

Director J. Daniel Herring conceptualized this musical version to show how children use their imaginations in this classic tale of good vs. evil and in a way that differs from other stage productions. Children see the people in their everyday lives in their fantasies, Herring says, as Dorothy did in “The Wizard of Oz.” The show is practically sold out, so move fast if you want to catch it.

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