The climax of The Scarlet Pimpernel, with its sudden reverses, swashbuckling sword battles and sudden unmaskings, is fascinating to watch.
But then again -- so are the people who are watching it: the audience.
Here's how they looked, some from the side of the theatre, some glimpsed from the wings backstage, some visible on a backstage video monitor.
During the song "You Are My Home," in which the condemned say farewell to loved ones on the morning of their execution, a man wraps his arm around his female companion and holds her close. Long necks in evening gowns swallow. One woman leans her head on her companion's shoulder. Here and there across the house, you can see a glistening eye.
In the next scene, a dramatic one with Terrence Mann closing in on the Pimpernel, one woman could be seen gnawing the corner of a handkerchief. A man very determinedly worked a wad of chewing gum. A stage hand taps a shoulder, "This gun is going to go off soon." He points to Production Stage Manager Steven Beckler, about 18 inches away, who somehow has acquired a starter pistol and is pointing it in the air. Everyone around already has their fingers in their ears.
On stage Terrence Mann points a gun out the window as a signal, and fires -- or seems to. Actually, it's Beckler. We're all ready for it, but in the audience, people aren't ready for how loud it is, and jump.
There are lots of frowns, along with some giggles.
Immediately following is a scene in a bouncing carriage, in which the leading lady, Marguerite (Christine Andreas) learns the Pimpernel's true identity. Backstage, a stagehand already half in his cast party tuxedo is the one shaking the carriage unit. Out front in the audience, a man is hunched forward, his palms pressed together and his fingertips pressing his lips.
Next up is the grand confrontation between the Pimpernel (Sills) and his nemesis Chauvelin (Mann). Out front, it's all chins and bright eyes, as the tension mounts. During the sword fight, heads and going back and forth, following the action as the antagonists leap from platform to platform. Here and there, someone averts their eyes, or laughs at a sudden reversals.
Without giving away too much of the surprise ending, it can be reported that more than one person spent time unconsciously rubbing their neck. As the story takes its final twist one woman tossed her head in laughter, like a pony.
Backstage, as the show moved to its finale, everyone joined in singing -- including two makeup women who were standing patiently with the tools of their trade.
As the show ended, Sills and Andreas dashed into the wings. They were immediately set upon by the makeup people, who, in a whirr of action, dabbed their faces, combed hair, and changed jackets as the chorus took its bows. Freshened, the two stars bounded back onto the stage to take their bows.
Sills, Andreas and Mann take their bow together. Then the curtain falls, everyone darts into the wings and the curtain reopens with Sills alone. He calls Andreas to his side, then Mann. Mann then summons the full company again. After they bow again, Mann shoves Sills forward for another solo. The curtain falls again. Behind it, Sills embraces the actors close at hand while the other applaud him. Suddenly he realized the curtain is going up again and he snaps to attention and takes another. The curtain comes down yet again, and this time stays down.
On the monitor, you can see the opening night audience still standing and clapping.
Seen now only by the company, Mann applauds Sills, then raises his fists and everyone cheers. There is a general uproar of hugs and kisses, then the actors slowly disperse from the stage.
There waiting for them is wigmaster Leon Gagliardi who is gathering all the wigs in a laundry basket. "OK, darlin'," he says to one who has stopped to smile at him.