note: entire contents copyright 2008 by Chris King
So when you take your next trip on the Fung Wah to the Big Apple for a weekend of theater you can be sure to get your money’s worth dropping in at the Hirschfeld Theatre for A Tale of Two Cities. It is lifted neatly, if a bit too completely from the Dickens novel by the protean Jill Santoriello, who wrote music, lyrics and book. You may leave the theater two and a half hours later humming a tune from Les Mis, but the value in entertainment of the classic Broadway variety is certainly there beyond the lobby filled with Hirschfeld’s great cartoons. (Get there early so you can peruse this wonderful visual history.)
The plot is led by Charles Darnet and his lovely Lucie, played with panache and elegance by Aaron Lazar and Brandi Burkhardt. Ms. Burkhardt is a porcelain vision, as though she stepped from a cabinet of Royal Doulton figurines, Mr. Lazar equally slim and dashing. Neither she nor Mr. Lazar are given much solid sustenance in the way of music, but they guide us sweetly through this political musical, embodying the perfect couple torn apart by warring factions.
The factions in this case are the nobles and peasants of the French Revolution. Les Minski cuts steel with a fine baritone embodying the evil Marquis St. Evremonde (who happens to be our hero’s uncle). The point guard for the common folk is Madame LaFarge, played with sweet feistiness by Natalie Toro. You want to hate her more, but you can’t, though she plots the death of our favorite family. All in all she comes off more the wronged waif than the vicious, revengeful harridan. Still, we want more of her and are grateful for her boffo turn in “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” at the end of the first act.
The show works a bit hard filling in the history, sometimes in arias that skate between ballad and recitatif, bringing us up to date with pathos. We get involved most thoroughly when the chorus is on stage. Rarely have I heard better tuned voices, especially since they often sing while climbing, scrambling, or tearing about the stage. They bring much of the great humor to the show, sparked by the gent who hangs midway between the classes, Sydney Carton.
Carton, as personified by James Barbour, in a character part Russell Crowe, part Tim Curry, has a voice that can eat the whole theater. He plays the inebriate lawyer who aids and befriends Darnet and falls for Lucie in spite of himself. Some of the best humor comes from his quick asides, “It isn’t safe to go to the corner to throw up any more,” and “I like to make a nice impression. I always leave a dent.” But, aided by those magnificent pipes, it is Carton who most often moves us to get out our kerchiefs.
Minor characters also provide some levity. Nick Wayman has immaculate comic timing as the scoundrel John Barsad, and Craig Bennett gives us a rollicking grave robber and right hand man to Sydney Carton. “For a man who resurrects the dead, France is just the place to get a head.”
The guillotine, that efficient decapitator makes its first appearance as a toy in a play within a play that the common folk stage to reveal what they are doing to the nobles. Very effective. By and large the sets are very simple, bridging on low budget. Those of you who saw Ragtime at the New Rep will have déjà vu for the cagelike rolling sets that can transform from a nobleman’s palace to a courtroom, to a ratty town square. Lighting is unobtrusive, except when quick blackouts are used to reveal the passage of time. Costumes are elegant or disheveled; neither over the top.
While many of the songs in this show, especially as launched by Mr. Barbour, can sincerely move you, none stick in the head. Orchestration is lush and varied and fun and very well played.
So if you are looking for a meaty evening of theater, this brings it. Yes, it could use a trim of the periwig here or there. But it gives you a good story, well told and one of the best exit lines in theater.