William Thomas Evans
Raymond Jaramillo McLeod
Walter Winston ONeil
Eric Van Tielen
And now for the answer to the cliched question on everyone’s minds – is the new musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities the best of shows or the worst?
Finally, I have an answer; it is neither. Shakespeare or Sondheim it ain’t, but in spite of quips about the production, I found enough to enjoy about this fast-paced production, which borrows its visual cues from Les Miserables (the comparison can’t be overlooked) but recognizes, somewhere within its epic proportions, the core element of pathos within its weighty story.
The French Revolution-set Tale should be familiar to many audience members who’ve read the novel in high school or college. The premise is this: Dr. Manette, who’s been locked in the Bastille for over a decade, is released from prison, soon finding his daughter Lucie engaged to a young ex-aristocrat – now named Charles Darnay – whose ancestors the doctor condemned in his past. A drink-downing lawyer named Sydney Carton simultaneously falls in love with Lucie, who, having married Charles, can’t love him in return – and seems not to particularly care to. All of this soap opera-style romantic intrigue is juxtaposed against the terror of revolutionary France.
In condensing Dickens’s massive novel into approximately two and a half hours of playing time, Broadway first-timer Jill Santoriello, who has penned the show’s book, music, and lyrics, had her work cut out for her. Most of the songs here draw from the tradition of pop opera (which includes Evita, The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, and Miss Saigon, to name a few), combining recitative-infused songs with bombastic roof-raisers. And though her lyrics are too often trite and the book exudes toxic levels of melodrama and shtick, somewhere along the way I got caught in the show’s web. The bottom line is that Dickens’s tale of unrequited love and redemption is able to withstand even a mediocre adaptation in conveying its powerful message to an audience.
The material itself notwithstanding, the major asset of this epic production is its top-notch cast, especially James Barbour as Sydney Carton and Natalie Toro as the mysterious name-knitter Madame Defarge, whose powerhouse first-act number Out of Sight, Out of Mind was a highlight. Barbour, though he chews the scenery more than occasionally – particularly while ambling about in a state of faux drunkenness – still possesses one of the richest baritone voices on Broadway, one that can make even the middling lyrics on display here come to life, if only momentarily, with vibrancy and color.
What’s most unfortunate is that the actors seem by and large to have been instructed to perform extraordinarily broadly, turning in big, brash musical theatre performances that ring to the rafters, consequently impeding the effectiveness of many of the quieter moments of the show. This choice on the part of director-choreographer Warren Carlyle, who has wisely chosen to keep the story moving along at breakneck speed, seems to have yielded a mixed bag of results. On the one hand Katherine McGrath turns in a marvelous comic turn of pantomimic proportions as Miss Pross, Lucie’s confidante. On the other, Brandi Burkhardt, who is a pretty, pleasing presence overall, displays little of the on-stage specificity necessary to cement her relationships both with her husband Darnay and his rival Carton.
As for the lavish production design surrounding the cast, I think it’d be impossible for audiences not to leave humming Tony Walton’s towering, impressive set. Drawing inspiration from architectural elements of the two cities in question – the Globe Theatre in London and the Bastille in Paris – the skeletal cylindrical design of the movable central set piece, which also breaks up into smaller segments to allow for greater versatility, transports an audience quickly from one setting to the next. One minute we’re in court, the next we’re in a brothel or on an eerie green moonlit street at night. Misty watercolor scrims add color to the proceedings.
It’s true that, at times, A Tale of Two Cities is not the nimblest of beasts. The writing is hit-or-miss and the acting ranges from competent to above average (though the singing voices are never meager). But still, there’s something there, beneath the massive sets and the over-amplified power ballads – a story that refuses to go down without a struggle. As the show steamrolls toward its well-known conclusion, Carton ascending to meet his fate, I felt a suspicious catch in my throat, which, I suspect, wasn’t merely a lozenge lodged improbably in my gullet, but instead the stirrings of genuine feeling.