So many songs, so little plot


By Scott Harrah

Ambitious production of Dickens’ classic misses the mark

Anyone who has read the Charles Dickens novel “A Tale of Two Cities” is familiar with its famous opening sentence, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” So one might think a musical adaptation of such a beloved piece of literature would make the best of musicals, right? Unfortunately, one never experiences “the best of times” while watching this misguided production from book, music and lyric writer Jill Santoriello and director/choreographer Warren Carlyle. Although this Broadway interpretation of Dickens’ most renowned story is ambitious, it merely offers a mediocre evening of theater for audiences. People expecting a grand, historical stage epic like “Les Miserables” will be seriously disappointed.

This is purportedly a Broadway musical adaptation of the Dickens novel, but there are far too many songs, few of which do anything to propel the plot forward. There are 20 songs in the first act alone, making “A Tale of Two Cities” seem more like an opera than a musical. Any good musical contains songs that help tell the story, but most of Santoriello’s turgid, lifeless ballads seem like filler. Santoriello’s songs primarily give us background on the characters, but her lyrics have little emotional depth. Only the first act’s finale “Until Tomorrow”—in which the French sing about being on the brink of revolution—truly captures Dickens’ powerful narrative.

One major problem is the lack of any solid set to anchor the show. The story takes place in both London and Paris around the time of the French Revolution, but the staging of the show is barren and jarring, without the necessary lavish sets to really bring the era to life on stage. Most of scenic designer Tony Walton’s sets are metal, two-tiered, scaffold-like platforms on wheels that are supposed to represent taverns and chateaus in the respective cities, but they look more like pieces of high-tech, 18th century playground equipment. Characters rush on and off the sets at a dizzying, annoying pace. What’s supposed to be a spectacular, big-budget musical ends up looking more like an amateurish community theater interpretation of Dickens. The show debuted last year at a theater in Sarasota, Florida to much acclaim, but despite a competent cast with great voices, this “Tale” was likely in need of serious script and directorial “doctoring” when it was still on the regional circuit.

Book writer Santoriello focuses much of the drama on lawyer Sydney Carton (played with aplomb by James Barbour). Barbour has a lush, mellifluous baritone voice and is the best thing about “Tale.” The trouble is his character Sydney is an alcoholic and not the kind of person for whom audiences will feel much sympathy. Santoriello places much emphasis on the romance between Lucie Manette (Brandi Burkhardt) and French aristocratic husband Charles Darnay (Aaron Lazar), and the threats to his life from French revolutionaries. The romance alone should be enough to intrigue audiences as it certainly was in the novel.

In the novel, much of the story revolved around Darnay trying to save his life and his family, but Santoriello takes some of the focus off this key plot point and instead pads out the story with hollow songs that make the show drag at a lugubrious pace.

Santoriello also beefs up the role of the notorious Madame Therese Defarge (Natalie Toro), a woman who stirs up the peasants to revolt against the upper classes. Although Toro gives an energetic performance, she often overdoes it, and comes off too melodramatic to be truly convincing.

The novel “A Tale of Two Cities” is a classic, with a strong story that stands on its own and certainly doesn’t need unnecessary songs or thematic tweaking of narrative or characters. Santoriello’s scattershot interpretation and Warren Carlyle’s haphazard direction drain all the emotion out of Dickens’ story. There’s a reason why all the great stage musicals of yesteryear were true collaborations, with one person writing the book, and others to write the lyrics and songs, a choreographer—and a solid director. To mount a stage adaptation of a great story, one needs a team of people to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Here, we simply have Jill Santoriello, giving us stilted dialogue, loaded with clichés and lame attempts at humor, and a forgettable arsenal of flimsy songs that never quite do Dickens justice. Warren Carlyle directs the gifted cast adequately, but he should have spent more time working with Santoriello to make her book and songs more focused and true to the novel to give “A Tale of Two Cities” the dramatic veracity it desperately needs and deserves.