A Tale of Two Cities
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 24, 2008
I think that New York theatre audiences are hungry for a musical version of A Tale of Two Cities—an uplifting story of the oppressed rising up against greedy and unfeeling aristocrats, and of pure unconditional love and self-sacrifice for the greater good of humanity.
You'll note that I said a version of A Tale of Two Cities; but not, alas, this particular version, which is sadly deficient in just about every way save its source material. It's the creation of Jill Santoriello, who, the program tells us, is a self-taught musician with, apparently, no prior theatre credits (at least none are listed in her bio). The director-choreographer is the only slightly more seasoned Warren Carlyle. The inexperience of its two most important contributors is apparent throughout the show: the lyrics are trite, the book is lumpy and unwieldy, the music is mostly bland and forgettable, and the overall structure and shape of the piece is disturbingly derivative (Les Miserables seems to be Santoriello and Carlyle's model). It is this last item that is most troubling—the dearth of originality in this piece, especially given the talented collaborators who were somehow persuaded to work on this show (Tony Walton on sets, David Zinn on costumes, Richard Pilbrow on lights), is frankly appalling.
For this really is a sort of Les Miz redux, from the opening accusatory chorus of downtrodden Parisians singing "The Way It Ought to Be" to the Act I curtain featuring those same Parisians preparing to storm the Bastille to a tune called "Until Tomorrow"; and, in Act II, from a recreation of said storming that looks embarrassingly like a road company version of Trevor Nunn's famous barricade scene to a finale featuring a saintly hero bathed in white light as he bravely faces his imminent death.
But Dickens's novel is only superficially like Victor Hugo's, and that's why the copycat approach is both so disappointing and so wrongheaded. The themes of A Tale of Two Cities feel enormously timely, as a matter of fact, and it would have been interesting to see them taken on their own terms, and given their own voice and style, even within the confines of the poperetta genre that Santoriello seems to favor. (If you need to know the basic storyline, here's an overview on SparkNotes (with spoilers!) and here's an excellent summary of the main themes of the piece.)
The narrative is clearly rendered and is strong enough to make the musical involving on its own meager terms, and Carlyle's staging, though clunky, is never plodding. Several of the cast members come close to rising above the mediocrity of their material, among them James Barbour in the showiest role of Sydney Carton (he gets the one memorable song, "If Dreams Came True"); Aaron Lazar as Charles Darnay, the French aristocrat-turned-democrat who is the catalyst for much of the action in both London and Paris that propels the story; Katharine McGrath as spunky maid/governess Miss Pross; and Nick Wyman as the would-be comic villain John Barsad (the Thenardier character; and Wyman played Thenardier famously and well for some six years!).
Santoriello and Carlyle's artistic limitations keep A Tale of Two Cities from inspiring us; they're barely able to eke out a show that competently entertains us. There's little movement in the show apart from cast members rearranging Tony Walton's set pieces (and then rearranging themselves inside and around them). There's virtually no comic relief. There's not even a proper love duet. There's earnestness galore, but that just won't sustain a musical that wants to be a soaring epic: I really do believe that Santoriello loves this material, but she never is able to show her audience why. So instead of this Tale feeling like the outpouring of passion that one wishes it were, it comes off merely as a cynical attempt by 19 (!) credited producers to cash in on a misbegotten grafting of a familiar theatre genre on a famous title.