New York City Theater
"A Tale of Two Cities"
Al Hirschfeld Theatre (Broadway)
Some actors are born to the role. Consider Michael Crawford in “Phantom of the Opera,” or Lawrence Olivier in “Henry V.” And now James Barbour comes along to play Sydney Carton in “A Tale of Two Cities,” which has just opened on Broadway.
His thrilling baritone lifts the show to soaring heights, high as the scaffolding on which the players hold forth. It is indeed a juicy role, and Barbour meets the challenge, an unlikely hero of a Dickensian melodrama. Seen first as a roustabout and drunkard, he rises to new heights when he falls in love. Carton willingly sacrifices his own life for the woman he loves.
It is Barbour indeed who makes this show a Broadway must. Otherwise, one might ask, why create “A Tale of Two Cities” in the first place? The similarities to Broadway’s recent long-running “Les Miserables” are all too obvious, making for a case of déjà vu. We’ve seen Paris in the 1789 revolution. We’ve seen the downtrodden French mount the ramparts and defy the aristocrats. We’ve heard the stirring songs. Why retrace those steps?
But, apart from Barbour, this is an appealing show in its own right, with book, music and lyrics by Jill Santoriello. First, Santoriello focuses on the specific Dickens tale, which one need hardly point out is a dickens of a play. Everything is there to stir the soul—young love, purity, vengeance, villainy, valor--all played out against that historic revolution.
Secondly, director Warren Carlyle directs a highly competent cast, all in fine voice, rounding out the dazzling Barbour performance. Particularly memorable is Natalie Toro, who plays the avenging Madame Defarge. But Brandi Burkhardt is delectable as the Lucy every one loves, veteran performer Gregg Edelman is first-rate as her father, as is Aaron Lazar who plays the handsome, upright husband. But, under Carlyle’s facile direction every one in the large cast falls into place, like pieces on the chessboard.
Equally significant in creating the mood is the design team, with the appropriate period costumes of David Zinn and haunting lighting of Richard Pilbrow. And Tony Walton’s brilliant but simple—in fact, simply brilliant—stage set works like a charm. Large metal scaffoldings mounted on wheels roll on and off stage as needed, creating the many scenes in Paris and London.
All told, this “Tale” with its array of song, spectacle and heartbreak, should join the panoply of long-running Broadway musicals.
Sept. 17, 2008