It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Charles Dickens was referring to 1775 in that famous opening line, but it might also be applied to 1985. The arrival of “Les Miserables” that year helped revitalize the commercial theater sector, going on to become a global blockbuster. But it also started a longrunning epidemic of literature inflated into poperatic spectacle, spawning endless imitations that have rarely worked since. The latest of them, “A Tale of Two Cities,” is by no means the least, but it’s a lumbering artifact — overwrought, under-nuanced and hopelessly old-fashioned.
Producers keep gambling on these bloated, blustery epics, hatched out of literary or historical sources, which is puzzling since most of them have failed to gain traction on either side of the Pond. Broadway has seen its share of unmemorable ’80s-style period pulp in the past decade or so, including “Jane Eyre,” “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” “Jekyll & Hyde,” “The Woman in White” and “The Pirate Queen,” while two singing tomes have already come and gone without bumping into an audience in London this year, “Gone With the Wind” and “Marguerite.”
Of all the Brit-lit heavyweights, Dickens might seem one of the more manageable targets for musical adaptation, given the vividness of his characters and the relative ease of stripping away descriptive ornamentation to reveal the sturdy bones of the author’s plotting. Yet for every “Oliver!” or “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” there’s a “Pickwick” or “Copperfield” probably best forgotten.
Taking on book, music and lyrics, theater novice Jill Santoriello gets points for ambition, but the confession that she began writing songs for the show during the first Reagan administration only underscores how outmoded it is in style and conception.
Despite some unfortunately florid dialogue and inelegant lurches whenever the narrative is required to advance several years (the bridal veil that becomes a baby is right out of community theater), Santoriello relates the bloodstained story accessibly enough. But, with an assist from Warren Carlyle’s clunky direction, she reduces it to a stodgy romantic-triangle melodrama in which love, proletarian uprising, vendetta, sacrifice and death serve as song cues, but rarely provide stirring emotional or dramatic peaks.
The three points of that triangle are jaded, boozing English lawyer Sydney Carton (James Barbour), exiled French aristocrat Charles Darnay (Aaron Lazar) and Lucie Manette (Brandi Burkhardt), raised as an orphan but reunited as a young woman with her father (Gregg Edelman) following his release from 17 years’ unjust imprisonment in the Bastille. Shifting between London and Paris during the French Revolution, the story hinges on Carton’s redemption through his unrequited love for Lucie, prompting him to intervene heroically when Darnay is sentenced by the newly empowered French peasants to die.
More capable vocally than in book scenes, the cast struggles to add dimension to cardboard cutout versions of their characters, particularly in the laboriously expository first act: Burkhardt is pretty but bland; Lazar’s principled nobility is colorless; the too-youthful Edelman keeps his brow furrowed sorrowfully; and Barbour is all louche dissoluteness — though at least he injects some sly humor into the mix.
While nobody is exactly underacting, Lucie’s no-nonsense governess (Katherine McGrath), double-dealing crook Barsad (Nick Wyman), starchy bank functionary Mr. Lorry (Michael Hayward-Jones) and grubby porter Cruncher (Craig Bennett) bring a little texture to stock figures. Others are more heavy-handedly drawn, like Charles’ villainous uncle (Les Minski) or vengeful Madame Defarge (Natalie Toro), snarling over her knitting and spitting out lines like, “Tell wind and fire where to stop, Ernest. Don’t tell me.”
In the second act when the conflict accelerates, a number of musical moments ignite, notably when Barbour’s character becomes more resolute and his robust baritone assumes the lead. But Santoriello’s songs sound familiar, forgettable and all pitched at the same strident emotional level, adhering closely to the formula perfected by composing team Boublil & Schonberg in “Les Miz.”
There’s the tender reunion, the boisterous tavern number, the scoundrels’ ditty, the impassioned declaration of love, the introspective expression of self-reprimand, the embarrassing Josh Groban-esque epiphany, the seething revenge vow, the child’s lullaby and even the multistrand act-one closer that comes together into a revolutionary call to arms. Do you hear the people sing?
Richard Pilbrow’s codified lighting — royal blue for Britain, blood-red for Paris, naturellement — is a little basic, and David Zinn’s period costumes are Masterpiece Theater 101. But even if it transports us visually at times back to the barricades of “Les Miz,” Tony Walton’s versatile set of movable scaffolds is a striking solution to the story’s numerous locations, something missing elsewhere in this retro musical’s creative process.