Haven't we been here before? And in much better crafted company?
The ghosts of musicals past are floating through Broadway's Al Hirschfeld Theatre these days, crowding the stage where a plodding, perfunctory adaptation of Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities" has taken up residence.
The production, which opened Thursday, is a curious throwback, a return to the era of big British blockbusters such as "Les Miserables," ''The Phantom of the Opera" and "Miss Saigon" and their lesser American imitators, including "Jekyll & Hyde" and "The Scarlet Pimpernel." All of them — with varying degrees of success — are awash in sound and fury.
"Les Miz," of course, is the most obvious comparison. It, too, deals with Gallic revolution — although a different one from the turmoil that preoccupies Dickens' lengthy novel, which is set against the backdrop of France's Reign of Terror.
Broadway newcomer Jill Santoriello has provided not only the music but the book and lyrics for "A Tale of Two Cities." It's a heroic job of multitasking but her efforts stretch the show mighty thin — particularly in the music department, where faint echoes of "Les Miz" (by way of "American Idol") reverberate every now and then. These similarities are most noticeable in the show's spirited first-act finale which has the downtrodden citizens, ready for blood, lined up across the wide Hirschfeld stage.
Dickens' story is packed with plot, and Santoriello's condensation is necessarily sketchy. Which means the score has to provide the emotional wallop only hinted at in her book. Unfortunately, it doesn't. Despite the bombast, the melodies are wispy, almost anemic and the lyrics elemental and predictable. They will have you involuntarily completing the rhyme — and being right every time.
The paucity of strong songs puts an extra burden on the actors, but they ably meet the challenge. Chief among these performers is James Barbour, who portrays the dissolute Sidney Carton, the show's late-blooming hero.
Barbour has one of those industrial-strength voices, perfectly suited for the kind of full-voiced pyrotechnics that are necessary for larger-than-life shows.
Barbour also possesses considerable stage presence, and he nicely accentuates his character's self-mockery. Humor is scarce in Santoriello's adaptation, confined mostly to lowlife characters and servants.
The genius of Dickens' novels comes from his specific characterizations, vivid portraits of people, good or bad, who are very real. His characters have been captured most effectively in the stage version of "The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby," codirected, by the way, by Trevor Nunn, the man who also co-directed "Les Miserables."
In "Two Cities," Santoriello's creations are practically ciphers. She concentrates on the story's love triangle — Carton's unrequited love for the beautiful Lucie Manette who, in turns, marries the impossibly good Charles Darnay. Brandi Burkhardt plays the dewy ingenue while Aaron Lazar grimaces nobly as Darnay.
Her villains are cardboard creatures, too. Madame Defarge, that vengeful knitter who demands Darnay's death, doesn't get beyond snarling in stereotype. But then Natalie Toro, who plays Defarge, is saddled with one of the evening's worst songs, the modern-sounding "Out of Sight, Out of Mind."
Warren Carlyle, responsible for the show's direction as well as its minimal choreography, moves things along at a relentless pace. But the effect is wearying rather than exhilarating.
Even the sets are a letdown. If "Les Miz" has designer John Napier's gargantuan barricades and "Phantom of the Opera" was enhanced by Maria Bjornson's massive Paris Opera House set, "A Tale of Two Cities" is stuck with Tony Walton's spindly towers that look as if they are made of plywood, swirling in and out of the wings.
They are emblematic of what is wrong with the show, a pale imitation of all those big booming musicals that have gone before.
It was the worst of times . . . and the worst of times. Who knew how eagerly I'd await Sydney Carton's closing words, "It's a far, far better thing that I do . . . "
Actually, this Carton - a sensational James Barbour - didn't put a foot wrong all evening. It was where he had to put his foot that things fell apart.
Perhaps one more city - perhaps Dublin, with its "Riverdance" - might have added some liveliness to this slow-paced pedestrian version of Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities," which opened last night under the glowering shadow of "Les Miserables."
Jill Santoriello's book clings closely to Dickens' own, with some nips and tucks, but her lyrics are unimaginative and her music sounds like "Les Miz" and dishwater.
I suppose that, as a musical, "A Tale of Two Cities" has none of the free-flowing thrust of Victor Hugo's "Les Miz." Here is an attempt at an epic musical with no superstructure to support it.
While the "Les Miz" team managed to extract a stirring hymnal to the glory of France, Santoriello has left herself only with Dickens' brilliantly contrived domestic drama, which rises to histrionic heroics only in its final scene at the guillotine.
Perhaps any show that boasts more producers than leading actors must be suspect. And this "Tale," which originated at Florida's Asolo Repertory Theater, has all the mannerisms of a modest provincial theater, with director/choreographer Warren Carlyle's direction and choreography appearing equally thin.
Helping this low-rent musical rise even to one and a half stars are Tony Walton's ingenious skeletal settings and impressionistic backcloths, David Zinn's stylish costumes and Richard Pilbrow's imaginative lighting.
Of the performers, Brandi Burkhardt's Lucie proved sweet-voiced, though occasionally wooden; Aaron Lazar cut a dash as the French nobleman, Charles Darnay; and in smaller roles, Michael Hayward-Jones, Craig Bennett and, particularly, Nick Wyman as Barsad had the right Dickensian spirit.
But the show belonged to Barbour's sonorous-voiced Carton, one of literature's first anti-heroes. He sang and acted wonderfully, with a kind of hangdog panache that was both ironic and, on the right occasion, very moving.
So much for all those satisfyingly cheap jokes a critic might have been making this morning about “A Tale of Two Cities,” the lumpish musical adaptation of the beloved Charles Dickens novel, which opened on Thursday at the Al Hirschfeld Theater. Those snarky duties have already been expertly tended to by the satirical revue “Forbidden Broadway Goes to Rehab,” which inconveniently opened on Wednesday and devotes a short, sharp skit to this newest arrival to the neighborhood.
You will therefore not be reading on these pages any witty reworkings of the famous first and final lines of the novel that lives on forever in the syllabuses of eighth-grade English classes: no nasty variations on the old “best of times, worst of times” dichotomy or those noble words of self-sacrifice about “a far, far better thing.” (Just so you know, “Forbidden Broadway” turns that one into “ ’tis a far, far lesser show I do now. ...”)
I’m tempted to pretend I didn’t hear the one about “Tale” being called “the son of ‘Les Miz’ ” (a reference to another, better musical about another, lesser French revolution). But everybody’s so sticky about plagiarism these days. Curse you, “Forbidden Broadway.”
Maybe I could come up with something on my own, an acerbic little riff on guillotines and decapitated hopes. But no, my heart’s not in it. This stolid poperetta, which features book, music and lyrics by Jill Santoriello and is directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, is one of those unfortunate shows that are neither witty in themselves nor able to inspire wit in others. To say it could have been worse — i.e., gloriously, hilariously bad — is not a cause for rejoicing.
The objective of this show’s creators appears to have been to cram in as much basic plot as possible from the novel, perhaps the most purely plot-propelled work that Dickens wrote. Consequently, there are songs that are tediously devoted to subjects like how X is related to Y who did such-and-such to so-and-so Z number of years ago. Listening to so much twisting exposition set to music is kind of like hearing a far-fetched, coincidence-driven Italian opera like “Il Trovatore” in English.
To be fair, Ms. Santoriello does manage to hoist into her script most of the skeleton of the novel’s story about love and death and mistaken identity in late-18th-century London, allowing for a few chronological rearrangements and telescoping of details. But that’s one big old T. rex of a skeleton, and it doesn’t leave much room for other niceties. Flesh and blood, for instance.
It seems fitting that Tony Walton’s set should be skeletal, too: an all-purpose series of tiered, moving scaffolds. Add to this a few sticks of furniture and an ensemble in standard period costumes (by David Zinn) and voilà! (as we say on the Continent), those scaffolds become a French chateau, a London tavern, a cozy English nest of domesticity, a Channel-crossing ship and the Bastille.
As if to match the moving scenery, there are numbers about the circularity of life, love and history. (“Round and round and round you go,” as a jolly drinking song puts it.) Yet “Tale” feels strangely static, more diorama than merry-go-round. Even when the downtrodden residents of Paris are in full rebellion, stomping toward the stage’s edge in angry formation, they don’t exude much energy. Maybe they’re self-conscious about having to recreate tableaus out of the long-running “Les Misérables” (which was revived on Broadway only two years ago).
The music that accompanies these scenes does inevitably recall similarly propulsive numbers from “Les Miz.” Most of the rest of the score blends into a blur of unfolding recitative, interrupted by occasional blasting ballads that let singers prove that they coulda been contenders on “American Idol.”
I can’t say any of those songs etched indelible character portraits. As is often the case with Dickens, the lovebirds of “Tale” aren’t very interesting to begin with. Here, Charles Darnay (Aaron Lazar), the former French aristocrat turned English good guy, and Lucie Manette (the toothsome Brandi Burkhardt, a former Miss New York), the sweeter-than-pie heroine, register as attractive figurines on a music box.
Dickens’s strength of portraiture in “Tale,” with one famous exception, was in his second tier of characters, drawn with his fabled vivifying eye for the grotesque. The heightened individuality of such characters has never translated well to other mediums. (Oddly enough, Hollywood studios in the 1930s, with their stock companies of quirky supporting players like Edna May Oliver and Basil Rathbone, were more successful than most interpreters in this regard.)
The reliable Gregg Edelman does his best to bring a haunted quality to the troubled Dr. Alexandre Manette, a French physician scarred by long years of incarceration in the Bastille. But there’s not much space for idiosyncratic flourishes here.
Most of the performers are hobbled by the cute, contemporary-sounding badinage that has been thrown in as a bridge between songs. And most of them are rather vapid. Even the fearsome Madame Defarge, the revolutionary firebrand who (literally) knits the destiny of others, lacks distinctive menace. As played by a mop-haired Natalie Toro, she seems like a generally amiable arts-and-crafts type, temporarily in a bad mood because she lost her Carole King CDs.
If you want grotesque, look (bizarrely enough) to the show’s star, James Barbour, who portrays the worthy but dissolute Sydney Carton, he of the “far, far better thing” spiel. Mr. Barbour, who played Mr. Rochester in the Broadway musical of “Jane Eyre,” is giving the kind of high-camp, hair-tossing performance New York hasn’t seen from a leading man since Robert Cuccioli lashed the air with his ponytail in “Jekyll & Hyde.”
With a voice that combines the boom of thunder with the breathlessness of Marilyn Monroe and a leaning posture that appears to be in eternal search of a lamppost, Mr. Barbour invests every minute he’s onstage with heavy-lidded, overripe languor. Some might call his performance de trop (well, in Paris they might). But hey, at least he shows signs of life, something otherwise perversely lacking in this tale of historic turmoil.
A Tale of Two Cities" is a middling Masterpiece Musical, a paint-by-numbers throwback to the late - and, in this corner, unlamented - heyday of novelized epics on turntables. It has lots of nice period costumes and good actors singing their lungs inside out on material that all sounds the same.
The adaptation, music and lyrics, on Broadway after a success in Sarasota, Fla., are all by Jill Santoriello, who proudly describes herself in the program as self-taught and who obviously studied "Les Misérables." The big production has been directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, in his Broadway debut.
Does Broadway need such a show? How desperate is the underserved pop-operetta audience since the latest revival of "Les Miz?" The results, especially considering the relative inexperience of the creators, are surprisingly solid. The show is less bombastic than some examples of the musical-potboiler genre, less foolish than some others. If this sounds like a recommendation, you know whom you are.
The newcomers have been surrounded by an experienced design team - including Tony Walton, who smartly moves the Charles Dickens story through what seem like hundreds of different realistic and abstract locations throughout Paris and London.
And that's just before intermission. Although the show is hardly short, it fast-forwards through the many short scenes in the overpopulated plot as if being speed-read. The generic songs, especially in the long, yet hurried, first act, seem truncated, as if they began and ended at their last stanzas, which make the musical climaxes feel unearned.
The cast is never less than passionately earnest. James Barbour is considerably more than that as Sydney Carton, the dissolute English attorney who learns selflessness through love of Lucie (Brandi Burkhardt), who marries the noble French aristocrat (Aaron Lazar).
Barbour has a silky, sulky reptilian charisma and a voice that, for all the monotony of the crooning style, has remarkable range and color. Natalie Toro, as Madame Defarge, the revolutionary who knits, has a pungent Brechtian edge.
Vapid songs drone on about how fine life would be "if dreams came true." Two of the big faceless numbers, significantly, are titled "I Can't Recall" and "Out of Sight, Out of Mind." And so's the show.