September 20, 2008

‘Tale’ Plays By the Book




New Broadway musical, at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 W. 45th St., Manhattan.

Book, music and lyrics by Jill Santoriello. Directed by Warren Carlyle.

With James Barbour, Aaron Lazar, Brandi Burkhardt and Gregg Edelman.

Schedule: 7 p.m. Tuesday; 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: $59 to $120. Telecharge: 212-239-6200, or at

If creating a successful musical were only as easy as putting a reasonably interesting story and competently written songs on a stage, "A Tale of Two Cities" would be a hit.

Unfortunately, those accomplishments only get you as far as mediocre.

The adaptation of Dickens' French Revolution novel, which opened Thursday night at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, is earnest and faithful, and not terribly exciting. It lacks theatricality, that thing that makes a show jump off the stage.

Jill Santoriello, a newcomer who wrote the book, music and lyrics, has fastened on the novel's love triangle as the center of the evening.

It's an understandable choice, but it creates dramatic problems.

The main focus is on the alcoholic English lawyer Sydney Carton, and while he's the only character who really changes over the course of the story, and he has a pivotal role at the end as well as the most famous lines ("It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done"), he's peripheral to the central plot.

Giving him lots of stage time and songs sabotages the flow of the storytelling. The imbalance is emphasized by James Barbour's self- conscious "star" performance, in which he strides purposefully around the stage, singing and speaking twice as loud as anyone else, as though unaware he's miked.

He's a stark contrast to the other two-thirds of the romantic equation. Carton's beloved Lucie (Brandi Burkhardt) and the man she loves, the French ex-nobleman Charles Darnay (Aaron Lazar) -- he's withdrawn from his family because of his uncle's mistreatment of the poor -- are written and played as boring, personality-free saints.

Another impediment to drama is the overload of interchangeable, schmaltzy romantic ballads that, rather than elevating or punctuating the story, just interrupt it.

Not that the action scenes are that compelling anyway.

The whole evening, under the direction of Warren Carlyle, another Broadway novice, has a naive, mechanical feel to it, the quality of everything being done by some established Broadway book, with a tidy mix of musical numbers, narrative exposition and dramatization. The few attempts at humor are delivered with special emphasis, so we'll know the intention is comical.

There's also the "Les Miserables" problem.

The two stories have inevitable similarities. But "A Tale of Two Cities" also invites comparison to the immensely superior "Les Miz" by its artistic choices, particularly in musical numbers.

The most glaring is its first act curtain song, "Until Tomorrow," in which we're faced with a line of contentious Parisian revolutionaries. Think "One Day More" from "Les Miz," with a soupcon of "Do You Hear the People Sing?"

All the important characters from Dickens' novel are present, including old Dr. Manette (Gregg Edelman), the madly knitting Madame Defarge (Natalie Toro), the despicably evil Marquis St. Evremonde (Les Minski) and the comical crook Barsad (Nick Wyman), with events principally playing out on three rather ungainly moving towers.

A couple of scenes are vivid, notably the climb to the guillotine by Carton -- after he's nobly switched places with the condemned Darnay -- along with other innocents, including a touching young seamstress (MacKenzie Mauzy).

All in all, though, "A Tale of Two Cities" is Broadway at its most ordinary, a show that invites not cheers or boos, but a shrug.


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