AISLE SAY Florida
A TALE OF TWO CITIES:
Book, Music and Lyrics by Jill Santoriello
Based on the novel by Charles
Directed by Michael Donald Edwards
Starring James Barbour, Joe Cassidy, Derek Keeling, Jessica Rush & Natalie Toro
Asolo Repertory Theatre's Mertz Theatre, FSU Center for Performing Arts
5555 North Tamiami Tr., Sarasota
Oct. 16-Nov.18, '07
Reviewed by Marie J. Kilker
After about two decades in the making and two weeks of previews, public and press have seen the (hopeful) pre-Broadway debut of Jill Santoriello's intended-to-be epic musical. Despite Tony Walton's multidimensional set, lit impressively by Richard Pilbrow (using blue or red to distinguish the two locales), what emerges is a tale primarily of and in one city. It's Paris--leading up, then into the French Revolution, intertwined with subplots of romance, revenge, redemption. London, though with its equal share of socio-economic inequality and a King who inspires revolt, is mainly a place of the musical's principals' safety from Paris.
Santoriello follows Dickens' main narrative line. Marquis St. Evremonde (Les Minski as boogey-man), who's had good Dr. Manette (impressive Alex Santoriello) imprisoned for 18 years for knowing his secret murders, so oppresses commoners that nephew Charles Darnay (amiable Derek Keeling) renounces his title, gives his estate to the poor, and flees to England. There he falls in love with Lucie Manette (beautiful blond soprano Jessica Rush), who's helped to bring there and to "resurrect" her father. Coveted by legal fox Stryver (Wayne Schroder, true to type), Lucie also kindles romantic fire in cynical barrister Sidney Carton (star-from-the-start James Barbour), whose argument aiding Stryver and resemblance to Darnay helps acquit him in an unjust court. Even though Darnay admits to his family's identity, his character persuades Dr. Manette to bless his marriage to Lucie. Carton befriends the family, especially the Darnay daughter Lucie. He watches lovingly over her mother, disguising his concerns, so that both she and her staunch English guardian Miss Pross (Katherine McGrath, injecting likeable spirit into a stereotype) often find Carton lacking. During the Reign of Terror, however, Darnay returns to France to save an innocent former servant. He is captured and imprisoned. His family follows, hoping to save him, but Madame Lafarge (gutsy Natalie Toro) vows "Now At Last" she'll revenge her own family against his. Suspense mounts. Will Dr. Manette or Carton be able to save Darnay? Will Lafarge be able to stop that and kill both Lucies? Will Carton sacrifice himself for love?
Even reduced to summary, the plot is complicated. Dickens originally told it in serial form of several Books, each with multiple chapters. Jill Santoriello borrows this episodic structure and, despite editing, brings in a variety of characters who support the story's twists and turns at greater length than necessary. Graveyard scenes involving Cruncher (Craig Bennett, rough and tough), for instance, are unnecessary though, in the end, he isn't. It's as if the playwright felt she needed comic relief, as in Hamlet. Joe Cassidy comes over so likeable as Ernest Defarge that his wife persuading him to disregard Dr. Manette's plea for mercy for Darnay is hard to believe. Evremonde's carriage running over Little Gaspard (Owen Teague) could be told rather than shown. It seems to be the clue for the drama to decend into melodrama (Rob Richardson as Gaspard killing the villain onstage), capped by the very s-l-o-w ascent to the guillotine at the finale. Along the way there's Carton singing "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep" to Little Lucie for the I Love Soupy crowd and Madame Defarge's "Out of Sight, Out of Mind" adding a bit of Midnight Madness.
Although there are spotlit symbols and family in the scenes encasing the drama, both production and musical styles multiply. Early scenes stress recitative; late ones punctuate dramatic spoken dialogue with mostly solos. Voices, the most dramatically impressive I can recall in Sarasota outside of the Opera, are right for Broadway. None is better than Barbour's rich baritone. Luckily, with "The Way It Ought to Be" and "If Dreams Come True" he has fitting material. Another song with much love in it is "You'll Never Be Alone" by Jessica Rush to Alex Santoriello. Among derivative elements are street mimes (out of Children of Paradise?),puppet heads (which the Theatre de Soleil has done so much better and more appropriately), and twinkle-twinkle-lots-of-stars. Tony Walton's set has received the (symbolic?) Lion's share of pre-show publicity. His cages successfully suggest prisons, the upper tiers of 1793 courtrooms, scaffolding. A ship at portside draws oohs and ahs. Background city sketches are okay, but they don't quite overcome the difficulty of showing immediate symbols of Paris and London. (Present well known ones didn't exist at the period of the action.) With all the literary, musical, design, and technical STUFF, director Michael Donald Edwards keeps all moving along. He gets strong performances from his actors, not the least effective of which are commoners in crowds, never too sparse nor too crowded. Conductor/Music Director Jerry Steichen and orchestra, complete with Synthesizers, deserve a shot at Broadway too. If the musical-play would just get synthesized as well!
Costumes: David Zinn. Sound: Carl Casella & Domonic Sack; Orchestrations: Edward B. Kessel; Hair: Tom Watson; Music Supervisor: Wendy Bobbitt Cavett; Music Coordinator: James Neglia. Production Stage Manager: Kim Vernace. Time: 2 hrs.,30 mins. w/intermission.