"A Tale of Two Cities" is the worst of times

Thu Sep 18, 2008 5:01pm EDT
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By Frank Scheck

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Apparently operating under the assumption that Broadway will be bereft without a French Revolution musical, "A Tale of Two Cities" has arrived to fill the void left by the recent closing of the "Les Miserables" revival. (And before the mail comes pouring in, yes, we are aware that "Les Miz" actually is about the student revolt).

Unfortunately, this debut effort from writer-composer Jill Santoriello, who apparently has been working on the show for decades, demonstrates that Broadway is not the place for on-the-job training.

Santoriello, working in the semi-operatic style popularized by Andrew Lloyd Webber and the team of Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, has crafted a mostly tedious musical adaptation of the Dickens classic that is distinguished only by the compelling and beautifully sung performance by James Barbour in the central role of Sydney Carton, the cynical alcoholic who ultimately turns heroic.

Dickens' story line, familiar to every former high school student, remains engrossing, even if it is often confusingly rendered in sometimes confusing rendition. But though "Les Miz" triumphed on the strength of its gorgeously powerful melodies, this "Tale" is sunk by a power ballad-heavy score that features nothing comparable. And the less said about the lyrics, the better.

A huge cast does its best to give life to the melodramatic material, with mostly lackluster results. Aaron Lazar and Brandi Burkhardt have the requisite good looks and powerful voices for Charles Darnay and Lucie Manette, but both fail to make much of an impression. And though several Broadway veterans, including Gregg Edelman and Nick Wyman, provide vivid supporting turns, too many of the performers, like Natalie Toro as Madame Defarge, are undercut by the sketchiness of their roles.

Fortunately, Barbour delivers a bravura star-making turn, infusing his Carton with a sleepy, sardonic charm that clearly will win over audiences.

Director-choreographer Warren Carlyle, sometimes directly copying the staging for "Les Miz" -- the Act I closer, "Until Tomorrow," is a dead ringer for "One Day More" -- keeps things moving at a frenetic but wearisome pace, with touches like the use of a guillotine in a dance number proving titter-inducing. And the normally reliable Tony Walton has devised a supremely unattractive set dominated by two ungainly metal towers and enough bric-a-brac to fill a hundred antique shops.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

<p>The cast of Les Miserables rehearse two days before the opening night of the show in Singapore February 2, 1994. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake</p>