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'The Scarlet Pimpernel'

Who is that masked man?

He swashes, he buckles. He is an expert swordsman and a damned fine poseur. He is the scourge of revolutionaries-become-tyrants and the savior of innocent aristocrats herded to the guillotine. He is the Scarlet Pimpernel, and the namesake of Camelot Theatre's holiday production.

Director Livia Genise has conjured up a tremendously entertaining musical that shows off what the new theater venue can do.

When the first version of "The Scarlet Pimpernel" as a dramatic play opened in 1905, it was derided as "old-fashioned." The same can be said for the musical version that opened on Broadway in 1997. But times have changed, and outrageous melodrama now has its charms. It makes a lovely romp for the holidays.

"The Scarlet Pimpernel" is set during the French Revolution, when Robespierre and cohorts are taking their revenge on the aristocracy and anyone else who fails to be politically correct.

Music hall performer Marguerite St. Just has fallen in love with an English aristocrat named Sir Percy Blakeney, who is about to sweep her off to his estate in England. But Marguerite has a secret: She was previously the lover of Chauvelin, an aide to Robespierre. She is terrified that Sir Percy will reject her if he finds out. Chauvelin uses this to blackmail her into revealing the whereabouts of one of Sir Percy's French friends, the Marquis St. Cyr, who is subsequently guillotined.

Back in England, Sir Percy discovers this on their wedding night. He avoids her and broods on the knowledge. When a group of his friends arrives the next morning, he reveals his plan. They will become an avenging band, the Scarlet Pimpernel (named for the flower on his family's crest) and his brave, loyal followers. To throw off suspicion, they will all act even more foppish than they already are.

Marguerite is appalled at what her husband has apparently become. Percy is ever more distrustful of his wife.

As the Pimpernel and his men stage daring rescues of doomed aristocrats, his fame grows in England and France. The British love him; the revolutionaries despise him. He is the "damned, elusive Pimpernel."

Chauvelin arrives in England on a supposedly diplomatic mission from Robespierre, but his real mission is to discover the identity of the Pimpernel. He once again blackmails Marguerite, this time with the capture of her brother Armand. She must use her connections with British royalty to help Chauvelin or Armand dies.

It's a lavish production with gorgeous costumes in shimmering satin and lace created by Heather St. Louis, innovative sets and scenic design by Don Zastoupil and video design by Brian O'Connor.

Tim Homsley is delightful as Percy. He simpers, swishes and camps as the fop to throw off suspicion from the derring-do of the Pimpernel. Homsley's vocal talents may be overshadowed by his far superior comic acting skills, but he is a joy to watch.

Darek Riley also shines as the villain Chauvelin. If he had a mustache, he would be twirling it. Riley has a gorgeous, trained voice and he is graceful and sinuous — he almost slithers. (Riley also did the fight choreography.)

These two are not quite matched by Kelly Hammond's Marguerite. She is a trained opera singer, not an actress, and the role needs her vocal expertise. Unfortunately, Hammond's French accent is not very good and becomes an annoying tic early on. Her poor accent muddies the lyrics terribly when she sings in that language. But she is lovely and lively and all this doesn't appreciably detract from the effect.

Genise uses more than two dozen other actors, many playing duplicate roles. The "guys," the Pimpernel's eager band of titled twits, are especially delightful.

There were problems opening night. The kinks in the new theater's sound system hadn't been fully worked out. When the singers moved downstage, the lyrics were hard to discern. Having the orchestra off-stage behind the scrim meant that musical cues were sometimes mixed, so the singers and the music were not always in sync.

Overall though, "The Scarlet Pimpernel" is extremely entertaining and a great deal of fun. It plays at Camelot Theatre through New Year's Eve. For more information, call 541-535-5250.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.