A Tale of Two Cities

A Review by Barbara Mehlman and Geri Manus.

It is the not the best of shows; it is not the worst of shows.

It is, rather, a "Les Mis" remake, a reunion of Mis-ites (which is not surprising given that the original ran for 6680 performances and probably employed every musical actor in New York at one time or another). It's anthem song is not "One Day More," but "Until Tomorrow." And, "At The End of the Day," as the peasants sing in "Les Mis," the French and English in the new musical "A Tale of Two Cities," all opine about "The Way It Ought To Be."

Staged on metal pillars that move frequently and look more like "Rent" than 18th century Paris or London, "Tale" does capture the essence of Charles Dickens' novel and no one will have trouble following the classic tale. But Jill Santoriello -- who wrote the book, music and lyrics -- wisely refocused the story of the bourgeoisie vs. the aristocracy on the complex character of Sidney Carton.

Carton was a reprobate, a drunk who whiled away his time in taverns, and kept company with grave robbers and other assorted lowlifes. But Dickens believed that even the basest of characters had the potential for nobility, and Carton, played by the exhilarating James Barbour, rises to that height as he takes leave of his head.

Barbour is one of the few members of the cast that is not a "Les Mis" alumnus, and his portrayal of the solitary Carton provides the originality of character that this "Les Mis" wannabe is often lacking. In this same vein, Brandi Burkhardt, making her Broadway debut, lends credence and vocal skills to a downplayed Lucie Manette, heroine of the tale. When the show focuses on their story, we are theirs, but when it lapses into "Les Mis," we forget it's "A Tale of Two Cities."

Madame DeFarge, that indefatigable knitter, however, brings us back. Played by understudy Anne Tolpegin (for Natalie Toro), DeFarge brings the French Revolution to a personal level. Her performance of "Out of Sight, Out of Mind" is a fire-breathing show-stopper, and adds to the story's passion.

Gregg Edelman renders Dr. Manette with stoic tenderness, and his voice has gotten richer since he first appeared in "Cats". His duets with Burkhardt, and Aaron Lazar who plays Charles Darnay, are formidable, but we half-expect him to sing "Bring Him Home" in the second act.

What the show is missing more than anything is the comic relief between the members of the lower classes. These scoundrels, led by Craig Bennett and Nick Wyman, playing Jerry Cruncher and Barsad, tell us there's "No Honest Way" and no honor among thieves, but neither the lyrics nor their lines give us anything akin to Thenardier and "Master of the House."

"A Tale of Two Cities" is, to use one of its signature songs, a "Dream Come True" for Santoriello, who has been envisioning a Broadway run of her musical for 20 years. Together with executive producers Barbra Russell and Ron Sharpe, who met while performing in "Les Mis", they culled what worked and used performers whom they knew would produce the sound and ambiance they wanted. But in so doing, they created something too much like what went before.

Despite this weakness, "Tale" will touch you deeply especially when Carton goes to keep his appointment with the guillotine, for when the story focuses on him, "A Tale of Two Cities" soars. Barbour brings a dignity to this ne'er-do-well that is undeniable and we forgive him all his sins even before he is beheaded. But when the musical turns its attention to the French Revolution, we have, instead, "A Tale of Les Mis."

So if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then "A Tale of Two Cities" does itself proud in honoring one of the best Broadway musicals ever. It is a far, far better musical than many of the unmemorable ones that are still running, and with James Barbour leading the charge, it is thrilling.

Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus

What the press had to say.....

"This stolid poperetta... 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."
Ben Brantley
New York Times

"Classics will always have a place on Broadway. The lesson of "A Tale of Two Cities" is that they need imagination and innovation. The season's new arrival isn't the best of times or the worst of times, just an uneventful 2 3/4 hours of your time."
Joe Dziemianowicz
New York Daily News

"IT was the worst of times . . . and the worst of times..." & "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." & "Helping this low-rent musical rise even to one and a half stars are Tony Walton's ingenious skeletal settings."
Clive Barnes
New York Post

"Neither the best nor the worst of Broadway times, "A Tale of Two Cities" is a workmanlike but uninspired musical version of Charles Dickens' novel spun from the French Revolution." & "Trite titles like "You'll Never Be Alone" and "If Dreams Come True" provide some indication of the conventional nature of a bland score decked out with 18th-century trimmings, like a sailors' chanty and a tavern number. Bombastic orchestrations ramp up the unmemorable songs, but the result is like piling whipped cream atop saltines."
Michael Sommers

"Santoriello's tunes could give ``familiar'' a very bad name, although some of them avoid embarrassing indebtedness by virtue of being tuneless. Worse yet are her lyrics, whose inspiration must have been the rhyming dictionary, and a skimpy, pocket-size one at that. "
John Simon

"There's the air of stuffy, often grim reverence, alternately suggesting a stern English teacher and a Monty Python parody of Masterpiece Theatre. There's the derivative score, offering vehicles for histrionic showboating in lieu of memorable original tunes." Elysa Gardner
USA Today

"If you loved "Les Miz" and "The Scarlet Pimpernel" on Broadway, you might like "A Tale of Two Cities." A little." & "Neither Santoriello's musical talent nor her lyric-writing skills are really up to the job, though, as she plucks well-worn phrases from Dickens, and adds her own lame tweaks: "Now is the best of times/The worst of times/And all things in between." Hmmm."
Jacques Le Sourd
Journal News

"The adaptation of Dickens' French Revolution novel, which opened Thursday night at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, is earnest and faithful, and not terribly exciting. It lacks theatricality, that thing that makes a show jump off the stage." & "All in all, though, "A Tale of Two Cities" is Broadway at its most ordinary, a show that invites not cheers or boos, but a shrug."
Robert Feldberg
The Record

"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." & "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."
Michael Kuchwara
Associated Press

"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." & "Fortunately, Barbour delivers a bravura star-making turn, infusing his Carton with a sleepy, sardonic charm that clearly will win over audiences." Frank Scheck
The Hollywood Reporter

"A lumbering artifact -- overwrought, under-nuanced and hopelessly old-fashioned." & "Santoriello relates the bloodstained story accessibly enough. But, with an assist from Warren Carlyle's clunky direction, she reduces it to a stodgy romantic-triangle melodrama in which love, proletarian uprising, vendetta, sacrifice and death serve as song cues, but rarely provide stirring emotional or dramatic peaks."
David Rooney

Originally published on

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