The Siegel Column

What the Dickens ...

It's perversely ironic that A Tale of Two Cities has its mirror image reflected in the Madame Defarge-like critics who would cut off the play's run with a guillotine, and an adoring audience that would happily sacrifice another play (what, maybe Spring Awakening?) to keep their musical alive. Where does the truth lie between the passion of its supporters and the withering contempt of its detractors? From our perspective, the two strengths of this show that opened last night at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre are the story and the cast. When it comes to storytelling, Jill Santoriello's book has the advantage of Charles Dickens' great romantic saga. As for the cast, they are a simply thrilling collection of actors and singers. The two weaknesses of the show are its mediocre music and often-banal lyrics, also courtesy of Jill Santoriello. The fact is, many musicals have the opposite problem: a good score and a lame book. But most musicals don't have so many sensational singers capable of making something bland seem like something special. Buoyed by the onrushing drama of the story, there is enough here, despite maddening flaws, that any true lover of the theater would not want to miss this show.

The knee-jerk reaction is to compare The Tale of Two Cities to Les Misérables. But let's be fair to the new kid on the block; the former is based on an equally famous novel that has its own distinct place in our hearts. From a political point of view, in fact, the Dickens story is ultimately a good deal less sympathetic to its revolutionaries (we don't think we're giving anything away here when we say that in this story the revolutionaries kill our hero). Our point is that, ultimately, to be fair, this new musical should be judged on its own merits rather than in comparison to one of contemporary theater's greatest hits. Is it hoping for the same audience that supported Les Miz? Sure. But that's a marketing issue, not a critic's concern.

James Barbour, by turns wickedly funny, heartbreaking and heroic, offers yet one more compelling element in his performance: perhaps the greatest contemporary male voice on Broadway (and we're including Paulo Szot in this roundup of talent). In an age of belting tenors, here is a baritone with a powerful voice so rich in timbre and so reliable in performance, that he takes your breath away. And Barbour is not the only performer at the top of his or her game in this show. Giving a gripping supporting performance in the pivotal role of Dr. Manette, Gregg Edelman has to begin his performance at full emotional throttle as a broken man, freed from The Bastille, and meeting his daughter whom he hasn't seen in seventeen years. Later, in a scene with the man who would marry his daughter, he sings and acts in high emotion—and high style. Other performers giving strong performances include Brandi Burkhardt as Lucie Manette, Michael Hayward-Jones as Mr. Jarvis Lorry, Nick Wyman as John Barsad, and the night we saw the show, understudy Michael Halling (handsomely standing in for the ailing Aaron Lazar) as Charles Darnay. With better material, these performers could set the stage on fire. In this show you have to settle for sparks and little flare-ups, but on a rare occasion one of those sparks might catch fire and burn for the length of a scene. One sits in the audience, therefore, ever hopeful.

This is a big show, lavish in its large cast, its swirling set design (Tony Walton), dramatic lighting design (Richard Pilbrow), classic costume design (David Zinn) and (happily) carefully calibrated sound design (Carl Casella and Dominic Sack). Director/choreographer Warren Carlyle has put everything at his disposal into play in order to shore up the musical's weaknesses and give A Tale of Two Cities its best chance to survive the guillotine. To our minds, though, it ought to be sentenced to a work-release program: work for a few months so that those who want to see it get the chance ... and then release it from the Hirschfeld.

Forbidden Broadway: A fond farewell

Forbidden Broadway, a formidable and much-beloved theater institution, will be taking its victory lap over the next four months. After twenty-seven years, the shows creator and writer, Gerard Alessandrini, has announced that show will go on indefinite hiatus. The final edition of his franchise, Forbidden Broadway Goes to Rehab, opened earlier this week and the show goes out with flags—and emotions—flying. It is, as always, wildly funny, but it is also—and we've never seen this in any other edition—both surprisingly personal and touchingly bittersweet.

Most new editions have contained a fair amount of tried-and-true material from previous years. Forbidden Broadway Goes to Rehab, however, has relatively few retreads, and even what little there is has been generally updated. Alessandrini has a lot to say and he packs it from the beginning, tearing gleefully into A Tale of Two Cities, Mary Poppins, In the Heights, The Little Mermaid, Xanadu, Young Frankenstein, August: Osage County, etc. He even takes a swipe right here at All That Chat. In other words, he truly covers the theatrical waterfront. The jokes come fast and furious and there's no need for us to steal his gags. They'll be funnier in performance than being read here. The point is, most of them work.

Though this is perhaps little remarked upon, in addition to his gift as a lyricist, Alessandrini and co-director Phillip George have consistently found some of the greatest young musical theater talents in New York, given them invaluable experience and exposure, and then set them loose to go to work in the theater for decades thereafter. Broadway is awash in Forbidden Broadway alumni. This current edition is no different in that regard. The four performers in this cast are exceptional, each bringing something valuable to the table. Jared Bradshaw is a leading man comic kamikaze, making fun of Melchior in Spring Awakening, Paulo Szot in South Pacific and Daniel Radcliffe in Equus. Old hand Michael West, a true veteran of the franchise, is hilarious sending up Lyn-Manual Miranda from In the Heights, James Barbour from A Tale of Two Cities, and Boyd Gaines from Gypsy. Gina Kreiezmar is also a veteran and she does impressively funny impressions of Patti LuPone, Liza Minnelli, and Idina Menzel. Making her Forbidden Broadway debut is the adorable Christina Bianco and she has the show's one comic tour de force, pulling off an astonishing version of "Glitter and be Gay," re-titled "Glitter and be Glib," in which she not only flawlessly sings this famously challenging operatic number, but does so while also going in and out of Kristin Chenoweth's cutesy speaking voice. She deservedly gets the show's single greatest ovation. She's also hilarious as the Little Mermaid and Bebe Neuwirth. Bianco is a real find. All of the performers are given essential support from the show's musical director, David Caldwell.

Finally, the comedy of this gifted cast is further enhanced via the inspired costuming by the late Alvin Colt (to whom this edition if dedicated), with additional costumes by David Moyer.

What ultimately distinguishes this show from past editions is the tone. There are times when Alessandrini doesn't so much satirize but, rather, mocks. Case in point, his put down of [title of show]. Clearly, in a very personal way, he feels that the [tos] boys have gotten a lot of ink by essentially ripping him off by making fun of Broadway using his same basic format of two guys, two girls, and a piano. The personal nature of this Forbidden Broadway takes a much stronger and warmer stance, though, in two other instances, both times essentially dropping its clowning ways to implore the audience to support high quality Broadway shows like South Pacific and later, in the show's finale, to honor someone who values lyrics as much as Alessandrini does: Stephen Sondheim. These are moments to treasure, because they come from a heart that has the unmistakable beat of Broadway.

A Number: wisely chosen

It's pretty ballsy of the Clockwork Theatre Company to bring back Caryl Churchill's provocative play, A Number, only a short number of years after the New York Theatre Workshop staged it with the headline-grabbing cast of Sam Shepherd and Dallas Roberts. Nonetheless, this young and upwardly mobile theater troupe working out of The Becket Theatre on West 42nd Street's Theatre Row has gambled and won, putting on a rendition of the 70-minute, intermissionless play that is compelling and very well acted.

The intriguing plot concerns a son who has just learned that he was cloned from the cells of his father's original child. What's more, he has learned (as has the father) that there are perhaps twenty other copies of him out there in the world. Revelations multiply almost as fast as the father's children. The original son is not dead as we were originally told. And that original son is out to seek vengeance for having been treated so badly by his father. There is more ...

Sean Marrinan plays the father with a strong sense of guilt coupled with an almost equally strong sense of logic by which he tries to convince his various sons that his actions, at least at the time, made sense. We meet three of the sons in total, all played by Jay Rohloff. It is, of course, a great acting opportunity for Rohloff, and he pulls it off impressively—never over-acting, but giving each of these young men their own voices, their own physicality, and their own personal style.

A play of ideas that sets the mind to thinking about what makes us who and what we are, A Number is directed by Beverly Brumm with a clear and direct style, almost diametrically opposed to the obfuscating sense of mystery and danger in the New York Theatre Workshop production. The current production might be a touch less theatrical but it better serves the ideas of the play. In service to the director's vision, the set design by Larry Laslo is purposefully modern, suggesting a future environment where the cloning of human beings would not be such a shock. The lighting design by Benjamin C. Tevelow and the sound design by Jason Sebastian further enhance that image.

-- Barbara and Scott Siegel

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