Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Review of "A Tale of Two Cities"

The French Revolution lives again in the new Broadway musical, “A Tale of Two Cities.” Based on the Charles Dickens classic novel of love, courage, betrayal, and sacrifice, “A Tale of Two Cities” is presented in Cliff Notes fashion—hitting all the important plot and character points of the intricately woven story. Initially, the musical proceeds at a brisk pace which, for those unfamiliar with Dickens’ work, allows the drama to build to a satisfying first act climax. However, theatergoers looking for more breadth and depth on the Hirschfield Theatre stage will be sorely disappointed.

The second act compounds the drawback. Even though it encompasses just the latter third of the book, providing more time for the action to unfold, the libretto becomes a bit too ponderous for the production’s own good. This is one of the three major shortcomings of “A Tale of Two Cities.”

The second problem is when the musical veers towards “Les Mis” territory. Comparisons, fair or not, are going to be made between the two historic flavored musicals. But “Les Miseables,” one of the longest running shows in Broadway history was, all around, a stronger, more compelling production. When the cast of “A Tale of Two Cities” lined the stage during the Act I finale, “Until Tomorrow,” I thought I was staring at a revisionist staging of the Alain Boublil - Claude-Michel Schönberg classic.

The primary setback for “A Tale of Two Cities” is the rather lackluster score, punctuated here and there with Frank Wildhorn styled power ballads. A musical undertaking of such a well-known, well-regarded and lengthy tome as “A Tale of Two Cities” needs to possess songs worthy of the Dickens saga. First time composer Jill Santoriello (who performs a trifecta by also writing the musical’s book) is simply not up to the task. While the score is not totally unimpressive the songs cannot rescue the show from its own weightiness and self-importance.

Yet with all the demerits affixed to the production, “A Tale of Two Cities” is somewhat salvaged by the performances of the three leading players. Brandi Burkhardt is beautiful, with a gorgeous voice, as the compelling Luci Manette. Aaron Lazar, handsome, upright and committed, perfectly embodies the spirit of Charles Darnay; while James Barbour has been ideally cast as the doomed Sydney Carton. Barbour’s voice is especially noteworthy, wringing all the emotions he can out of each and every one of his solos. Special mention goes to Nicky Wyman as the scoundrelous John Barsad. Wyman plays the rogue with such relish that you wish Santoriello had more fully shaped the other supporting characters with such three dimensional aplomb.

Tony Walton’s prominent set design, moveable skyward towers, allows for a winning variety of abstract constructs throughout the show. While not ideal, for a musical of this magnitude, they allow for the momentum of the show to carry forward.

Warren Carlyle’s direction gives ample stage time to the three principles, allowing them to bring their forceful presence to the forefront. However, his fast-paced tempo of the show’s beginnings is allowed to implode under its own girth by the musical’s end.

“A Tale of Two Cities” – now at the Al Hirschfield Theater in New York.