An actress wearing a black skullcap and head microphone is hanging onto a metal ladder, leading to the lighting catwalks. One hand holds the steel railing, the other holds her wig.
She's watching the Act I scene of Scarlet Pimpernel in which the foppish Sir Percy decides he's had enough of the Reign of Terror, and is ready to lead a company of his friends into a secret battle, with himself as . . . The Scarlet Pimpernel!
"This isn't a French war anymore," Douglas Sills intones onstage, about 15 feet away. "It's a war against humanity!"
The stage-left wing is occupied by three stagehands, one in costume, Production Stage Manager Steven Beckler is at his post, watching the show on three closed-circuit monitors, one showing the stage from the front, one showing it from above, the third showing the face of conductor Ron Melrose. Other monitors are arranged backstage so the actors can see Melrose, too.
The climax of this scene will be the stirring song "Into the Fire." As the scene progresses, more of the actors and dancers gather to watch. ASM Marcos Dinnerstein, wearing a headset, advises people that a set bearing pallet will be whizzing through in just a few minutes, and they should stay behind a white-taped line on the "deck."
"What makes your blood boil?" Sills asks onstage. "No one will know it's us 10 bounders over there, saving lives."
The elevator and stairs from the chorus dressing rooms begins delivering more costumed actors to the area. There are now about two dozen, some in soldiers outfits, some in mob caps and Napoleon hats, or tricorns.
A reporter waves to Alison Lory, whose face is bathed in light spilling from the stage. But, on the night of her Broadway debut, she's hypnotized and doesn't notice.
From the stage: "Well, Percy, when do we start?"
"We start right now!"
The wing is now filled with actors, many gathered to watch Melrose on the video screen.
From the stage: "Each note will bear this stamp." The hunting horn theme sounds from the orchestra pit. "Never act on any instructions unless they carry the seal of . . . the scarlet pimpernel!"
As the song begins, things move into action. Stage hands get into position with a black panel. The actress holding the ladder almost loses her balance and another who has appeared next to her puts her arm around the other's shoulders and keeps it there.
As the song moves from its slow intro to its uptempo main theme, some of the actors begin nodding in time to the music. Dressers with laundry baskets filled with wigs and costumes trot into position through the throng of actors.
"Take one step back," a stage hand advises. "There are going to be some quick changes."
A split second later, an actor dashes past, pulling off his wig and jacket. These are thrown into a hamper, and new ones are snatched up.
The "cat" curtain directly in front of us rises, and a pallet bearing the drawing room set slides past us. Onstage, as the shipboard set magically rises out of the stage. The set change gets a hand from the audience.
The actress on the ladder pulls on her wig and adjusts it.
The costumed stage hand pulls over a huge tumbrel. The hatch in the back is lowered and an actress dressed as a nun is helped aboard. Several other actresses in costumes of various classes and stations clamber aboard.
Actress Terry Richmond pounds her hands on the railing, not in time to the music; simply in excitement. She leans over and whispers: "This is the greatest part!"
"Look out!" An actor dressed as a soldier rushes past, bayoneted rifle in hand. Richmond bobs back.
Suddenly, cued by Melrose on the video screen, the backstage actors add their voices to the climax of the onstage song. "Yes, it's higher and higher and into the fire we goooooo--"
The number gets a huge opening-night sort of hand, stopping the show.
Several actors backstage can't help but clap, too.
As the applause finally dies down, Richmond says, "Here we go!"
And she's pulled onstage for the next scene.
-- By Robert Viagas