The cast of A Tale of Two Cities. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
BOTTOM LINE: It's not the best of musicals, it's not the worst of musicals.
I don't want to compare A Tale of Two Cities to Les Miserables because ATOTC, in its own right, is an original musical based on the Charles Dickens novel of the same name, with book, music and lyrics by Jill Santoriello. It uses innovative lighting concepts and intricate sets and costumes to bring the story to life. Plus, all of the music is original. Technically speaking, ATOTC is an new and unique work. But since the comparison has already been made (whoops) I might as well elaborate. It's a musical about the French Revolution. It's musically traditional with a full orchestra and many ensemble songs involving boisterously elegant harmonies. The altruistic everyman stuggles to triumph above the evil bourgeoisie despite hardships and death. A sense of conquest over sorrow hangs in the air.
A brief synopsis (of this lenghty tome): a British man is wrongfully imprisoned in the French Bastille. He is finally released and reunited with his daughter, Lucie, who meets and falls in love with Charles Darney, a Frenchman who is an aristocrat though he has denounced his heritage because he disagrees with his family's abuse of power. After Lucie and Darney marry and start a family in England, the revolution begins to break out in France and Darney must go back to help a friend. He can't deny who he is and the people want him dead because of his lineage. Lucie's friend Sydney Carton (who's also in love with her) ends up the hero as he finds a way to help Darney.
ATOTC is an inherently good story, although this adaptation has a tendency to hit the audience over the head with plot points. It brings a sort of sit-back-and-relax vibe to the experience; there isn't much work involved with digesting the narrative. Sometimes passivity can be rewarding, especially if you prefer to go to the theatre for escapism and entertainment. If you prefer to be an active audience member however, you'll need to work to sink into your seat and just enjoy the show.
Also worth mentioning is the tremendously talented cast. They all command the stage and sing beautifully; all are perfectly cast in their roles. Leading the ensemble is James Barbour as Sydney Carton (Jane Eyre, Assassins), Brandi Burkhardt as Lucie Manette (Lil' Abner, Jekyll & Hyde) and Aaron Lazar as Charles Darney (Les Miserables, The Light in the Piazza). The ensemble of 38 powerful voices sounds fantastic, although the music itself is just perfunctory. I didn't have a desire to purchase the cast recording, although in the moment it was a completely adequate way to showcase the talent of the cast and orchestra.
It's easy to criticize this show because it's evocative of another, insanely successful musical; undoubtedly reviewers (and theatre snobs) will have a lot to say about this show. But there is a lot of good in ATOTC and it's certainly deserving of merit. With an intriguing story, a talented cast and a big budget for the technical stuff, this show is a theatrical experience that can be enjoyed without much intellectualizing. This production is truly a theatrical event and for many reasons it's worth seeing. And if you like grand musical theatre you'll have a wonderful time at this show.
(A Tale of Two Cities plays an open-ended run on Broadway at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 45th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues. For tickets visit telecharge.com or call 212.239.6200. Theatre Is Easy will let you know when discount codes are available, please check back.)