Charles Dickens' sprawling saga of the French Revolution has been filmed five times and adapted for the stage and television a few times, in addition to a West End musicalization in 1969. Despite the vivid nature of the story, harnessing it in song can be an unwieldy and daunting undertaking.

Charles Dickens’ sprawling saga of the French Revolution has been filmed five times and adapted for the stage and television a few times, in addition to a West End musicalization in 1969. Despite the vivid nature of the story and the colorful canvas of characters, harnessing the story in song can be an unwieldy and daunting undertaking. In the latest mounting, adapted for the stage by Joseph P. McDonald, the revolution takes second place to a romantic triangle.

Robert Hoover’s lyrics are pointedly more effective than his musical motifs. The story moves forward with clarity and a minimum of dialogue, but there is little melodic thrust. Descriptive selections such as “My Name Is Charles Darnay” and “I Am a Patriot” define the characters, but don’t attempt to hum the melody.

Tom Zemon scores as the brave and doomed Sidney Carton, the unconventional lawyer who sacrifices his life for the happiness of the woman he loves. Carton’s declaration of his “Independence” in a London pub, assisted by his legal colleagues and some saucy tavern wenches, is energized by Zemon’s virile presence, and the song enlivens the first-act pace considerably. Peter Flynn is a dour and restrained Charles Darnay, but he sings admirably and invests the poor soul with somber dignity.

The cast is a busy one, with more than 20 actors in multiple roles, from peasants and bourgeoisie to the aristocracy. Sarah Uriarte Berry is the picture-pretty Lucie Manette, and she sings quite sweetly when called upon, which is all too rarely.

Jan Neuberger is a rather restrained and impassive Madame Defarge. Determined to destroy all descendants of an aristocratic family, she hovers over a baby crib to sing a chilling lullaby to an innocent child — “Sleep, Little Evremonde.” It is her most villainous moment, and while she knits with a vengeance, missing is the front-row seat at the guillotine.

Ray DeMattis, as the scheming blackmailer and pickpocket John Barsad, adds welcome humor with “A Touch of Larceny,” one of the tuner’s more engaging diversions. Mark Jacoby acts the dotty old imprisoned Dr. Manette, who regains his memory when pardoned to serve as the comforting and supportive family patriot.

In “It Is So,” the storming of the Bastille amounts to little more than a march into the wings by Madame Defarge and the citizens of Paris, armed with meat cleavers and clubs. The power of an angry mob is clearly diminished, and the revolution appears to hold little more terror than a neighborhood rumble.

Good courtroom scenes always seem to command attention and hold audience interest, and when the show isn’t singing, director Richard Sabellico has staged sequences in the Old Bailey and later in a French tribunal hall with a dash of Dickens’ intrinsic theatrical skill.

A versatile revolving set with steps and platforms serves the action and scene changes well enough, while Gail Baldoni’s rich 18th-century threads add color.

The musical could have a Broadway future, but it remains a work in progress. For the time being, the only heads rolling appear to be in the audience.

A Tale of Two Cities

Helen Hayes Performing Arts Center. Nyack, N.Y.; 588 seats; $32.50 top

Production

A Helen Hayes Performing Arts Center presentation of a musical in two acts, with book adapted by Joseph P. McDonald from the novel by Charles Dickens, music and lyrics by Robert Hoover. Directed and choreographed by Richard Sabellico.

Creative

Sets, J. Branson; costumes, Gail Baldoni; lighting, John-Paul Szczepanski; orchestrations, Yaron Gershovsky; musical direction, Vincent Trovato; stage manager, John W. Calder III. Artistic director, Rod Kaats. Opened March 17, 2001. Reviewed March 25. Running time: 2 HOURS, 40 MIN.

Cast

Marquis St. Evremonde - Wayne Schroder Philip Damiens/ Gabelle - Bram Heidinger Nancy Damiens - Elizabeth Inghram Mister Lorry - Tom Henry Lucie Manette - Sarah Uriarte Berry Miss Pross - Marilyn Farina Monsieur Defarge - Ken McMullen Madame Defarge - Jan Neuberger Dr. Manette - Mark Jacoby Busar Harper - Mark Aldrich John Barsad - Ray DeMattis Charles Darnay - Peter Flynn Sidney Carton - Tom Zemon Lady Celestine - Maren Montalbano Jerry Cruncher - Patrick Garner
With: Robin Manning, William Thomas Evans, Ken McMullen, Andrea Bianchi, Lenora Eve.
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