Is it the best of times for the Asolo Rep’s A Tale of Two Cities?
By Kay Kipling
The challenges of adapting a classic novel for the musical theater are enormous; the ones facing a production of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, with its perhaps inevitable comparisons to megahit Les Misérables, are obvious as well. That said, the (hopefully) Broadway-bound musical version of Tale, now onstage at the Asolo Repertory Theatre, meets those challenges head-on and with considerable skill and artistry.
Credit for that first and foremost must, of course, go to composer and librettist Jill Santoriello, who’s spent years working on the show which is now being brought to life. She has managed to successfully streamline this famous book without damaging its core, and, aided by director Michael Donald Edwards and the musical staging of Warren Carlyle, to smoothly handle its swiftly swirling changes of scene and tone while still engaging our hearts, ears and eyes.
The storyline, for anyone who has somehow managed never to read the original, intersects the stories of beautiful Lucie Manette (Jessica Rush), her wrongfully imprisoned father (Alex Santoriello), her lover-husband Charles Darnay (Derek Keeling), the drunken, cynical barrister Sydney Carton (James Barbour) and the upheaval of the French Revolution, particularly as it is propelled by the vengeful Madame Defarge (Natalie Toro) and her husband, Ernest (Joe Cassidy). There are other notable and familiar characters as well: staid banker Jarvis Lorry (Michael Hayward Jones), fiercely English Miss Pross (Katherine McGrath), “resurrectionist” Jerry Cruncher (Craig Bennett) and duplicitous spy John Barsad (Nick Wyman, who manages to steal most scenes he’s in).
Despite so many characters and the historical details that must be attended to, A Tale of Two Cities is never hard to follow, and its cast, many of them Broadway veterans, is by and large outstanding. First praise here must go to Barbour, who perfectly embodies the jaded, world-weary Carton, whose love for Lucie ultimately lifts him to redemption through self-sacrifice; both his acting and his singing are superb, especially on the powerful I Can’t Recall. Second to be acclaimed is Toro, simply riveting as Madame Defarge, granted one of the show’s most instantly memorable numbers, Out of Sight, Out of Mind. Rush looks beautiful and sings well; her big solo, Without a Word, is certainly well rendered, but although her character requires a solo, its placement late in Act II seems to hold up the action a bit.
James Barbour in the Asolo’s A Tale of Two Cities.
Another song that on its own is entertaining, Resurrection Man, is well performed and a hit with the audience, but probably does not belong in the show; it and a couple of other overly broad bits of humor jar here. On the other hand, many of Santoriello’s lyrics convey just the right satirical bite.
The two-tier scaffolding set by stage legend Tony Walton and the backdrops conveying scenes of both Paris and London are impeccable, and the lighting by Richard Pilbrow, costumes by David Zinn and music direction by Jerry Steichen are also everything they should be. If Tale at first viewing doesn’t seem quite the epic story that Les Miz does, that may be partly due to the scale of both the Asolo itself and the show’s ensemble; certainly the story, the lead performers and the music are strong enough to be Broadway contenders.
A Tale of Two Cities continues at the Asolo Rep through Nov. 18; for tickets call 351-8000 or go to asolo.org.