Objectively assessing the adaptation of a beloved classic is difficult to begin with, as is adapting a beloved classic. Fairly judging a musical set in the same historical period and set against the same historical events as a previous musical adaptation of another beloved classic, without comparing or even mentioning that other adaptation, is yet more of a struggle. Granted that it would be difficult to stage French revolutionaries in their musical call to arms without recalling Les Miz; and granted one musical about the French revolution has as much right as another to stage such a scene. It would be nice if those who had the misfortune to come second took it as a challenge to avoid recalling the first's now iconic scene. But, considering the vast committee of producers listed for the new adaptation of Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, one can imagine that there may have been pressure to purposefully call into the minds of its audience a financially successful predecessor, rather than depart from it. The stories of the two novels are not the same, the characters differ in tone as well as detail. So let's move beyond comparisons to any other musical that may be based on a fictional work set on the background of a revolution.
Then there is the issue of adapting from one medium to another. The narrative voice has to be left behind, in this case that of Charles Dickens. The story can travel, though of course the literary version has the luxury of time and space for greater depth and complexity. This production of "A Tale of Two Cities" now at the Al Hirschfeld Theater, after a staging at the Asolo Theater in Florida, does a commendable job of streamlining the story for the stage, without, however, eliminating the need for some unfortunate exchanges of blatant exposition masquerading as lyrics. Characters can also travel from the novel to the stage, and Dickens' characters are often written in such broad strokes that they seem to be perfect fodder for a musical. But without Dickens' narration fleshing out the broad strokes, it is up to the actors and director to give them humanity. Under choreographer Warren Carlyle's direction, many of the performances here seem to be playing the outline only, and it is not until the second act of the production that the strength of the story itself truly draws us in.
The element of a musical that cannot be lifted directly from its literary source is, of course, the score. Despite the theater-world prejudice against the epic musical form (a condescension betrayed in the defining term of "pop opera"), some of us believe it is possible that one can successfully bring "big" stories to an audience with intelligence and feeling and art, and may even have tried. Composer-lyricist Jill Santoriello, who also wrote the book, shows intelligence in her lyrics and shapes musical phrases in such a way as to allow the truly glorious voices in this cast to impressively display their range and quality. But the intelligence and beautiful sounds of the parts rarely make an artful whole. Open to breaking extrinsic rules in writing, I'd rather not question the decision to take neither the "sung-through" approach nor that of the traditional song-and-book. But there seems to be little rationale, or at least a consistent one, for the choice of which lines should be spoken, which should be sung in that limbo of recitative, and which ideas should be shaped into songs that are more than individual phrases strung together. There is enough musical shaping in some of the songs to give the performers an athletic climb to climactic applause, but these musical moments seem to be fashioned with the same broad strokes as the performances, without enough inspiration to make one song, or song fragment, distinct from another or particularly memorable on its own.
No question the singing is memorable, particularly that of Brandi Burkhardt as Lucie Manette and James Barbour as Sydney Carton. Ms Burkhardt is both the visual and musical embodiment of Dickens' stock blonde heroines: purity and perfection. She also does her best to make her human as well as beautiful. Mr. Barbour has the fortune to play a character that is far more interesting, and much more fun, even though the dissolute antihero with a heart of gold has by now become a bit of a stage clich(. Nevertheless, he has all the necessary equipment to carry it off, and his voice has richness, power, warmth, and beauty throughout its range. Gregg Edelman as Dr. Manette, Aaron Lazar as Charles Darnay and Kevin Earley are all fine in less ostentatious roles. Although the powerful-voiced Natalie Toro held her big moments as a younger and sexier Madame Defarge, this was character more as symbol (or pop opera clich() than as dramatized human.
Sets by Tony Walton are spare and flexible to allow for fluid movement from scene to scene, and commendation to costume designer David Zinn for making Lucie's dresses as beautiful as she. (There are times I feel costume designers secretly hate women. This is not one of those times.) Musical director Kevin Stites also deserves mention, because the consistent beauty and phrasing of the singing doesn't happen with good vocal genes alone.
Not great art, but faithful enough to the story to allow a telling for those who would prefer fine singing to Cliff's Notes. And you can count on a few of Dickens' most famous lines. Far, far better lines than most of us can ever hope to pen.