New York City Theater
"A Tale of Two Cities"
Al Hirschfeld Theatre (Broadway)
It’s not the worst of shows; it’s not the best of shows. But, although it should distract and entertain those who couldn’t get enough of “Les Miz,” the mammoth musical version of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” isn’t very good, either. For a story steeped in violence and drenched in red lighting, the evening is bloodless, cold and unemotional.
The best of it is James Barbour as the drunken, dissolute, brooding, finally heroic Sydney Carton. His voice an instrument of great beauty and timbre, his figure at once menacing and imposing, his manner both courtly and rancid, Barbour dominates the production.
He sings the score as if it were by Verdi, when it’s really by Jill Santoriello, an admittedly “self-taught musician” who penned music, lyrics and libretto. Taming the sprawling Dickens novel, she hits all the high points of story and characters. True, her opening scene is a mistake since by the time it’s elucidated in the second act, it’s been long forgotten. But her efforts are sincere and not embarrassing.
While Santoriello’s lyrics are not memorable (“I’ll help you forget the emptiness you’ve known / You’ll never be alone”), they get us from here to there. Unfortunately, her music is boring sing-song, ersatz operetta without being at all melodic. When you find yourself humming tunes from “Les Miz,” you know something is amiss.
In case you were at home instead of in high school English class that day, “Tale” is, of course, the story of the French Revolution, told through the eyes and misfortunes of two look-alikes. Charles Darnay, descended from French nobility, is himself noble and self-sacrificing, while Sydney Carton, an Englishman who loves tavern denizens like whores and grave-robbers, is seemingly beyond redemption.
When he finally renounces his ignoble life, Carton becomes a Christ-like figure who saves others by his sacrifice. His famous closing line -- “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known” – is poignant and inspiring. In Barbour’s hands, it is also the emotional highlight in an evening that, despite love, betrayal, fury, murder and several beheadings, is devoid of feeling.
Little of Dickens’ deeper meanings or richness of language emerges in Santoriello’s telling. Understandably, to tame as much material as she has is commendable and when she pauses for the more human scenes – between Carton and young Lucie, between Carton and the banker Jarvis Lorry – her own humanity comes through. But then everyone goes back to singing.
Warren Carlyle’s direction and choreography are, like the show itself, vigorous and harmless. The novel’s characters are intact: Aaron Lazar’s warm Charles Darnay, Gregg Edelman’s empathetic Dr. Manette, Les Minski’s villainous Evremonde, Michael Hayward-Jones’ poignant Lorry, Katherine McGrath’s efficient Miss Pross, Brandi Burkhardt’s lovely Lucie, Natalie Toro’s hysteria-driven Mme. Defarge, Nick Wyman’s bearish Basard and Catherine Missal’s appealing Little Lucie don’t get lost amid Tony Walton’s restless scenery. Richard Pilbrow’s dramatic lighting features shafts from on high, while Carl Casella and Dominic Sack’s sound design makes sure most of the evening thunders.
Still, there’s James Barbour. If this doesn’t make him a star, nothing will.
-- David A. Rosenberg
Sept. 21, 2008