Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - September 18, 2008
A Tale of Two Cities the Broadway Musical Book, Music and Lyrics by Jill Santoriello. Based on the Novel by Carles Dickens. Directed & Choreographed by Warren Carlyle. Music Supervision & Direction Kevin Stites. Scenic Design by Tony Walton. Costume Design by David Zinn. Lighting Design by Richard Pilbrow. Sound Design by Carl Casella, Dominic Sack. Hair Design by Tom Watson. Special Effects Design by Gregory Meeh. Orchestrations & Arrangements by Edward B. Kessel. Additional Arrangements by Bob Krogstad, Wendy Bobbitt Cavett, Kevin Stites. Music Coordinator James Neglia. Fight Director Michael Rossmy. Cast: James Barbour, Craig Bennett, Brandi Burkhardt, Kevin Earley, Gregg Edelman, Michael Hayward-Jones, Miles Kath, Aaron Lazar, Katherine McGrath, Les Minski, Catherine Missal, Natalie Toro, Nick Wyman, with Drew Aber, Catherine Brunell, Alison Cimmet, Jennifer Evans, William Thomas Evans, Randy Glass, Kevin Greene, Michael Halling, Tim Hartman, Fred Inkley, Georgi James, Jay Lusteck Mackenzie, Mauzy Raymond, Jaramillo McLeod, James Moye, Walter Winston Oneil, Dan Petrotta, Devin Richards, Rob Richardson, Rebecca Robbins, Jennifer Smith, Anne Tolpegin, Erin Van Tielen, Mollie Vogt-Welch, Alison Walla.
The good news about Jill Santoriello's musical version of A Tale of Two Cities at the Al Hirschfeld is that it's better than it has to be. But despite a cast blessed with voices that would send thrills up the spines of Andrew Lloyd-Webber, Alain Boublil, and Claude-Michel Schönberg, this adaptation of Charles Dickens's 1859 novel about the French citizens overthrowing the ruling class is still an éclair desperately searching for its cream filling and chocolate icing.
Yes, this is yet another junk-food musical that co-opts a famous title and plot points and doesn't deliver much return benefit to the originator. But unlike other recent, hollow examples of the genre, many based on films of recent and questionable vintage - The Wedding Singer and Legally Blonde come instantly to mind - A Tale of Two Cities is at least based on a bona fide page-turner by a singularly gifted writer. That and Santoriello's impressive faithfulness to that source give this show a slight but noticeable entertainment edge.
It's hard not to become engrossed by the bare basics of the story, which examines the tangled lives of a French expatriate aristocrat, Charles Darnay (Aaron Lazar), and the British barrister Sydney Carton (James Barbour) over a turbulent decade at the close of the 18th century. Both men fight openly for freedom and quietly for the pretty young Lucie Manette (Brandi Burkhardt), whom Charles marries, and most cope with the long-lingering effects of words, deeds, and families in a culture ripped apart by its own indifference.
For both men, the personal and the political melt into a roaring good tale about one's responsibility to king, country, and oneself. But Santoriello's own charge of distilling Dickens's hundreds of pages into a 150-minute musical requires equally close scrutiny, especially as the results of such daring experiments have varied widely over the last 20 years, ranging from Les Misérables and Miss Saigon on one end of the scale to Shogun and Carrie on the other.
Santoriello has found room for some 20 significant characters but excised few major plot threads, weaving a very full show from Dickens's expansive-to-bursting book. The source of the sanity-sucking shame felt by Lucie's father (Gregg Edelman) during nearly two decades of imprisonment. The rage of the two Defarges, Ernest and Therese (Kevin Earley and Natalie Toro), who lead the underclass uprising, and how they factor into Charles's disintegrating saga. The depth and the breadth of Sydney's devotion to Lucie and Charles, and the genesis of the "far, far better" sacrifice he's eventually primed to make for them. It's all here.
But while the original book is not exactly robust in the character department, the musical ups the shallowness by several degrees of magnitude. Santoriello's dedication to Dickens has not extended into the songs or dialogue, which are respectively stationed in the hard-belting and get-it-over-with-now schools pop operas have traditionally favored. But if you need not have read the Dickens from cover to cover to follow the action, absorbing its grander implications is another matter entirely.
A Tale of Two Cities, even with the fly-scraping expanse of Tony Walton's schematic scaffolding Paris set, the violence and volume that flood every minute as if going out of style, and especially the stage-spreading storming of the Bastille that closes the first act, evinces less sweep and scope than nearly every other pop opera. Director-choreographer Warren Carlyle has devised a perfectly amenable staging that marshals waves of bright and dark (from lighting designer Richard Pilbrow) and billowing clouds of costume color (from David Zinn)... everything except the theatrical electricity to make their outing, and yours, more than superficially worthwhile.
Not that the actors don't give their all - they're by and large superlative singers, who would sound superb singing the songs if the numbers meant anything. But Barbour's haughty but full-bodied baritone is wasted on all the heart-on-his-sleeve arias that substitute for feelings, and the even more dynamic-voiced Lazar is criminally misused in fragments of music that don't help him present a complete man in historical turmoil.
Of the men, Edelman and Nick Wyman, as a pivotal turncoat, find the firmest medium ground between speechifying and emoting. Toro overdoes the scenes that identify her meager lot, but scores in the solo, "Out of Sight, Out of Mind," that catapults her vocals and her character's sanity straight to the rafters. Katherine McGrath brings some much-needed notes of sensitive sensibility to her role as Miss Pross, Lucie's doting governess.
She also demonstrates the richest irony of such forcibly exciting musicals as this one: The smallest things usually mean the most. McGrath's loving looks and unadorned actions, especially as the finale approaches, convey an honesty the bigger numbers can never unlock.
The most affecting moment of all is the last, when the Europe-spanning show is been reduced to nothing more than Barbour upon a single set piece, amid an empty stage of barely relieved black and the ringing voices of the invisible company consigning the saga to the past by singing in the future. This proves that A Tale of Two Cities was not entirely ill-conceived, merely coerced into being something that could never elicit the best of times from the best of ideas.