September 20, 2008
Of Two Minds About "A Tale of Two Cities"
Critics and theater geeks were sharpening the blades of their guillotines weeks before the new musical A Tale of Two Cities opened at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre on Thursday. The crimes committed by this latest adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel set during the French Revolution were deemed to be legion.
For starters, the book, music and lyrics were all written by one woman no one had ever heard of: Jill Santoriello, a 42-year old Sarah Palinish-upstart who had never been involved in a Broadway production before, who proudly declared that she had taught herself music, and who admitted to having never read any other Dickens novel besides the one she first began muscializing when she was still in high-school. (Click here to read an interview with her).
Then, there was the fact that the show’s leading man had gotten himself involved in a sex scandal earlier this year (click here to read an article about him). And, instead of coming in from one of the prestigious incubators of musicals like London, La Jolla, or Seattle, this production got its start at the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Florida. Meanwhile its novice team of producers—there are 20 of them—were lead by a husband-and-wife pair of former actors who had once been replacements in the original production of Les Misérables. Oh, the horror of it all. Off with all their heads.
Now, the contrarian in me would love to tell you that the naysayers were all wrong. But while A Tale of Two Cities is far, far from being the worst show I’ve ever seen, it’s an equal distance from being the best. I’m a Dickens fan. My mother gave me a copy of "A Tale of Two Cities," one of her favorites, as a Christmas present when I was eight. It was too early for me to appreciate it then but a few years later, I was swept away by the story of Sydney Carton’s willingness to sacrifice himself for the woman he loved. (And I’m not violating my anti-spoiler rule of not giving away the plot; the novel is on nearly every high school reading list, so if you don’t know the ending, shame on you.)
I’m also one of the few New York theater geeks who got a kick out of The Scarlet Pimpernel, Frank Wildhorn's overblown 1997 musical about a British aristocrat who rescues innocents from the guillotine during the French Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution. So despite all the pre-opening carping, I was ready to show some mercy towards A Tale of Two Cities. But from the first few notes, I knew that my heart wasn't going to be quite big enough for the task at hand.
The score sounded both familiar and forgettable. It also seemed as though Santoriello and her collaborators had never seen any other show than Les Misérables. The music sounded much the same as in the Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil megamusical, just not as memorable. Richard Pilbrow’s somnolent lighting seemed the same. David Zinn’s period costumes seemed the same. Even Tony Walton’s skeletal mobile set seemed almost the same.
Many of the actors are the same. Greg Edelman, the replacement for the relentless detective Javert in the original Les Miz, plays the honorable Dr. Manette in A Tale of Two Cities. Three actors who played Thénardier, the comedic tavern owner in Les Misérables, also have roles in the new show. And I didn’t have time to read through the bios of the entire 38-member cast to count all the others who had put in time on the barricades in Les Miz.
It’s actually its cast that saves A Tale of Two Cities. I know I keep saying this but the talent pool here in New York is incredible. And even though they were singing only so-so songs, the singers in A Tale of Two Cities are superb. Nearly all of the critics, even those who didn't like the show, swooned for James Barbour, who plays the lead role of Sydney Carton. He's too contemporary for my taste—putting a kind of David Lettermanish-who-gives-a-damn spin on Dickens’ hero— but I have no complaints about his powerful baritone.
Nor do I have anything bad to say about Brandi Burkhardt, a lovely-to-look-at-and-lovely-to-hear soprano, as Lucie Manette, the object of his love. I’ve read that Aaron Lazar is equally good as Lucie’s husband, the reluctant French nobleman Charles Darnay, but Lazar strained a vocal chord during previews and his doctor ordered him to skip the performance I attended. His understudy Michael Halling went on at the last minute and cast members applauded when he came out to take his curtain call bow. The audience that night cheered them all. Fans like these kept the similarly-themed and equally-panned The Scarlet Pimpernel running for two years and, who knows, they might do the same for A Tale of Two Cities.
In the meantime, if there’s anyone who should be celebrated here, it’s the 20 folks who put up the reportedly $16 million to put on A Tale of Two Cities. It’s easy to make fun of them. They all seem to be Broadway newbies. Instead of listing past credits, their Playbill bios say things like “Nancy is an avid equestrian, golfer and skier who loves travel and Broadway.” And yet, they believed in theater enough to dig into their pockets and come up with the money to support a huge cast and to give a newcomer a shot at the big time. Regardless of what you think about the resulting show, you've got to admit that nowadays those are truly revolutionary acts.