Review - A Tale of Two Cities: Barack Obama Put It Best...

While waiting in the lobby before taking in an offering from New York Musical Theatre Festival I overheard two women having a conversation about what we were all about to see.

"Yeah, it's a musical. This is a festival of all musicals."

"Oh good, I love musicals."

"It's just not, you know, like Broadway. They don't have all the big sets and costumes."

"Oh, but that's the best part."

I don't know what that second woman thought of the afternoon's NYMF production but I get the nagging feeling she might have raved over the new Broadway musical adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities.

Although I hadn't read any of the first wave of reviews, by the time I was seated for my post-opening night press performance at the Hirschfeld it was pretty much common knowledge to the entire Broadway community that the new (and from the looks of her Playbill bio, the only) creation from bookwriter/composer/lyricist Jill Santoriello brought out gobs of that legendary New York theatre critic acid wit among the great majority of my colleagues.

So I'm not going to write very much about the show because, at this point, there's really no sense in subjecting readers to a "Me too!" account of the material's ineptitude. Besides, I couldn't possibly come up with anything cleverer than David Cote's observation that the score sounds like it was composed on tracing paper.

But I will say this. Thanks to a bit of recently stirred controversy involving Barack Obama, John McCain and Sarah Palin, it wasn't long after the curtain was raised that a certain, newly-popular phrase kept repeating in my head: Lipstick on a Pig.

I seriously think we should start using the phrase Lipstick on a Pig to categorize a certain class of Broadway musicals; the ones where first rate productions are given to inferior material, prompting loud ovations of appreciation for the cast, the design, the staging... everything but the book, music and lyrics.

While Jill Santoriello's effort isn't aggressively bad - we're not talking In My Life or The Blonde In The Thunderbird, here - it's just sadly uninspired. Whatever emotional pull there is in the evening has already been supplied by Dickens' classic story of a hard-drinking English playboy who makes a heroic sacrifice for the husband of the woman he loves at the outset of the French Revolution's Reign of Terror. While the musical's book has a good, basic structure, the simple rhymes that make up her surface-scratching lyrics and the generically "glorious" melodies - the familiar kind of music that telegraphs to the audience that something of great theatricality is going on - adds nothing of interest to what was already there nearly 150 years ago.

But director/choreographer Warren Carlyle's production does efficiently supply the old Max Factor treatment. Tony Walton's set may seem disappointingly skeletal at first, but its large moveable units help keep the actors in perpetual motion, allowing us to admire how Dickensian everyone looks in David Zinn's costumes and Tom Watson's wigs.

And while the material barely tests the acting skills of the talented cast, the score at least provides a vehicle for some pretty damn terrific singing. Aaron Lazar can take that high belting business that's so popular these days and give it some real texture. Brandi Burkhardt, Natalie Toro and Kevin Earley all get their moments to show their stuff and reliable Broadway favorites Gregg Edelman and Nick Wyman are always a delight. Outshining them all - in a role where, quite frankly, any self-respecting musical theatre actor had better outshine them all - is James Barbour as the arch and clever bad boy, Sydney Carton. Giving the score more emotional weight with his versatile low baritone than Santoriello did with her piano, he reaches tortured depths and airy heights with a rich, masculine musical theatre timbre guided by intelligent, detailed phrasing.

But even outshining Barbour was a moment in the opening of the second act when an actor held up the gleaming metal blade of a guillotine that reflected a blinding beam of light directly into the face of some unfortunate patron sitting in the middle of the orchestra section. For what might have been 16 bars or so, I and many others in the audience turned our heads away from the stage to watch the guy trying to shield his eyes from the pinpoint light. Years from now, I'm sure that will be my most vivid memory from attending A Tale of Two Cities.

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From This Author Kristin Salaky

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