USA TODAY A TALE OF TWO CITIES REVIEW
'Tale' of two attitudes: Is it drama or parody?
By Elysa Gardner
NEW YORK — Do you think Les Miserables stands as the greatest accomplishment in the history of musical theater? Would you argue that the musical version of Jane Eyre that plodded onto Broadway in 2000 never got the respect it deserved?
It's fitting that the cast and producers of A Tale of Two Cities (** out of four) include Les Miz alumni, and that leading man James Barbour starred in Jane Eyre. Tale, which opened Thursday at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, has all the ingredients that made the previous literary adaptations irresistible to admirers, and insufferable for the rest of us.
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.
Broadway newcomer Jill Santoriello, who wrote Tale's book, music and lyrics, is clearly passionate about the material. And it's impossible not to be moved by the story of gentle, generous Lucie Manette, whose father is wrongly imprisoned before the French Revolution, and Sydney Carton, the dissolute banister whose unrequited love for Lucie inspires the ultimate sacrifice.
But if Santoriello hasn't quite given us Dickens for Dummies, her Tale oversimplifies the class and moral struggles of the book, and reduces its poignance to sentimentality. The Marquis St. Evremonde, brought to life by a preening Les Minski, is a cartoon character of a villain, reveling in the killing and disfigurement of peasant children. Little Lucie, the heroine's daughter, played by the adorable Catherine Missal, has perfect manners and even more perfect diction.
As Carton, the robust-voiced Barbour gets to be ironic at times, but his winking witticisms seem jarringly out of place with the show's heavy-handed tone. It's as if Santoriello were trying to acknowledge the postmodern sensibilities of today's campier musicals while championing the kind of bombast that they mock.
Brandi Burkhardt's Lucie sings prettily, if a little shrilly in the upper register, but acts as if she just graduated the Sarah Brightman Ingénue School, clasping her hands together and over-enunciating like a beauty-pageant contestant. As the scheming Madame Defarge, Natalie Toro is even more of a caricature, singing about revolution and vengeance in a piercing shriek that suggests she's half-expecting Robespierre, or perhaps Simon Cowell, to be in the audience.
Stage veteran Gregg Edelman delivers a more nuanced and compelling performance as Lucie's dad, but his haunted Dr. Manette cannot alone inject the grace and buoyancy this Tale lacks. Let's hope the new season brings far, far better options for musical fans.
Sign up to get email updates of Broadway and Off-Broadway reviews from DidHeLikeIt.com. You can be the first to find out if He liked it!