In Defense of an Epic Musical

tale-two-citiesThe critics were not kind to the new Broadway musical version of the Charles Dickens classic A Tale of Two Cities. Reviews ranged from mixed (critics referring to the novel’s famous first lines in saying the musical wasn’t the best of shows, but wasn’t the worst either) to harsh. While Tale certainly recalls shows such as Les Miserables and does not break any new ground, for me, at least, it tells a great story in a compelling, atmospheric, and dramatic fashion. Some critics feel that the era of epic musicals is past. But if the audience is given a good production of a strong story, I don’t see any problem with that.

I wasn’t completely unbiased when I went to see this show. The musical -- book, music, and lyrics -- was entirely written by Jill Santoriello. It is her Broadway debut. As it happens, I know Jill fairly well -- we worked closely together in the programming department at Showtime in the early ‘90s. I don’t think that prevents me from viewing the musical subjectively. And, quite frankly, if I hadn’t liked it, I wouldn’t be writing this review. But I liked the show quite a bit, and I think Jill Santoriello has done a fine job turning the huge Dickens novel into a Broadway show that effectively conveys the sweeping story in just over two-and-one-half hours. And for what it’s worth, at least eight friends have seen the show - most of them fairly regular theatergoers, none of them having the same connections to the author - and all have either liked or, in some cases, loved Tale. That is far from a scientific sample, but it indicates that, while Tale may not work for the critics, and some Broadway musical aficionados have also been critical, audiences do seem to respond to this powerful story.

The first half hour of consists of a good amount of exposition, introducing us to its multiple characters and their backgrounds. It works fine, but the musical starts to come into its own once the preliminaries have played out and we get into the heart of Dickens’s story. As the tale proceeds, the musical becomes quite involving and engrossing. The dramatic tension builds, and the evening’s climactic scenes prove to be moving, powerful, and quite beautiful - lots of Kleenex might come in handy.

Ms. Santoriello has done a particularly noteworthy job with the book she has written for Tale. Yes, Dickens wrote a great story, but Ms. Santoriello does strong work in condensing the Dickens novel and putting the story onstage to such compelling dramatic effect. There is some genuine humor in the show. She has wisely centered the story around the character of Sydney Carton, whose journey from drunken lawyer to redemption and heroism gives the musical its core. Carton is brilliantly portrayed by James Barbour, who perfectly captures his character’s doubts and problems, then ultimately brings real nobility to him. Barbour sings beautifully, and several of his songs are among the evening’s highlights.

The music has received some criticism, but it has grown on me. There is some complexity to the score, including sections of recitative (although Tale, unlike Les Miz, is not at all sung through, and there is plenty of spoken dialogue). I have the concept CD that was recorded several years ago, and, as I’ve listened to it more over the past few weeks, I do find that there are a number of melodies that are quite pretty and attractive, and they’ve been floating through my head since seeing the show. There are also a couple of stirring themes, and even a Gilbert and Sullivan type trial number early in the show. The music best registers after multiple hearings, and the score may lack the soaring big hit number, although I do feel a few of the songs come close. I very much like a duet between Dr. Manette and Charles Darnay, “The Promise,” which features a couple of beautiful melodic threads. And Carton’s numbers all score, including a touching song near the end, “Let Her Be a Child.” The first act finale, “Until Tomorrow,” while reminiscent of Les Miz’s first act closer, is, nevertheless, tuneful and rousing.

In addition to the excellent James Barbour, the cast is filled with talented Broadway pros who bring big voices to all their songs. Those include the lovely Brandi Burkhardt, who is a fine Lucy Manette; Gregg Edelman as her father, Dr. Manette; and Aaron Lazar as her husband, Charles Darnay.

The production has the proper big look and feel. There is some particularly effective lighting work. The sets, by noted designer Tony Walton, consist mainly of two big structures that are moved around and serve multiple needs. I might have preferred a slightly different approach, but I think the overall look works. I also think that Director Warren Carlyle has provided a great deal of style and atmosphere to the production. As the evening moves to its climax, he provides a couple of haunting stage pictures, including a final tableau that is quite beautiful. And, while this story was written a long time ago, its portrayal of the ramifications of fanaticism is still relevant.

A Tale of Two Cities may not be either a perfect musical or a great one. And, as I’ve said, I certainly went in wanting to like it. That said, there have been other shows I have really wanted to like, only to be disappointed. Tale tells a great story with drama, emotion, and even some beauty. This musical, with its French Revolution story, will not revolutionize musical theater. If you are not a fan of these kinds of musicals, Tale may not be for you. But, if you are looking for a big musical that compellingly tells a terrific, epic story, A Tale of Two Cities may give you just what you are looking for. - James Miller

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Mr. Miller is a former Showtime exec who has spent many an evening transfixed by the bright lights of Broadway and Off-Broadway.

A Tale of Two Pals

One can't wait until Mr. Miller reviews a symphony by his mother or or an ode by his milkman. And how about a samba by his Aunt Tillie?

But to be frank, I did see the show with several dozen students from my university, and I must state the love of this production on their part seemed universal. "Tales of Two Cities" is clearly a fine intro to the musical theater for the young—and apparently a helluva of a blast for pals of the composer.

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