Those of you who mourn the era of the bloated 1980s musical should pay a visit to the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, where A Tale of Two Cities calls forth memories of the best and worst of times, while never hitting either extreme.
This production written solely by Broadway first-timer Jill Santoriello, has been inevitably compared to Les Miserables, another page-to-stage musical about revolution -era France ( though set a few decades later). More than a dozen members of the cast of the current show are Broadway or national tour alumni of Les Miz. But while A Tale of Two Cities boasts some truly wonderful singing, reminiscent of the original companies of the older show, the positive comparisons pretty much end there.
None of Santoriello's songs are particularly memorable, for one thing. And, while she has somewhat effectively streamlined Charles Dickens's plot to fit into less than three hours of stage time, some of her theatrical choices seriously undermine the evening's potential impact. What scene from the novel, for instance, could possibly be more dramatic than the storming of the Bastille? Yet we barely see that event unfold. Instead, the show's opportunity for a thunderous "One Day More"/"New Argentina" moment is dispatched with a tepid melody and what seems like a few minutes of vague running around.
Director Warren Carlyle, whose primary New York directing credits include downtown fringe as well as concert stagings for City Center's Encores!, has not yet mastered the art of of the epic sweep. For a show that demands stirring tableaux, he too often substitutes gimmicks, such as one involving the blinding glare of a guillotine blade ( which does little more than annoy a large section of the squinting audience) and a falling body trick that can be seen to better effect in The Phantom of the Opera a couple of blocks away. Carlyle also has a way of over-literalizing some of his moments. "Round and round and round we go, but no one ever moves," sing his actors-and darned if that's not just what they do.
There are times, actually, when the director seems to really want the use of John Napier's famous turntable from Les Miserables. Unfortunately, Tony Walton's set for Two Cities is perfunctory in comparison. Set pieces wobble. One house looks like another, making it difficult sometimes to keep track which of the two cities the characters are in. And, in one scene, foliage overhead looks a bit too much like immense leaves of Romaine lettuce.
Still, for all the pitfalls, this musical does have a couple of aces up its sleeve. Superlative source material, first of all. The production does occasionally succeed in getting out of Dickens's way and letting his story move you. And it boasts some of the most powerful singing voices currently on Broadway, including Aaron Lazar as the dashing Darnay, and James Barbour, as his sardonic look-alike, Sydney Carton. Barbour is also adept at injecting humor and pathos where it's not always evident on the page. He is definitely the star of the show.