The recipe is the same one used for “Les Miz.” Take a classic novel filled with romance, adventure and sweep, add some big-note ballads, a rousing anthem and a sound system that can go beyond tilt, and voila! But the dish doesn’t always turn out right, as demonstrated by this misguided out-of-town attempt to make Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” sing. The creators involved in this production, trying to stir up some interest via a short run in Stamford, Conn., have an eye for source material but are less skilled in making it come alive in musical or dramaturgical terms.
Chad Hardin’s script opens on the obvious note: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” announces an unidentified actor, standing in front of a scrim that features the same line (for the hearing-impaired?). He adds, ponderously, “It is just like our time.”
The script then plunges carelessly — and confusingly — into the narrative of Dickens’ episodic page-turner of resurrection, revenge and redemption in London and Paris at the time of the French Revolution. The treatment makes the Cliff Notes version of the classic tale epic by comparison. Dickens’ many plotlines and characters are presented in snippet scenes without much logic or clarity.
The outline of Dickens’ love triangle remains intact, albeit abridged: Lucie Manette (Christeena Michelle Riggs), an angelic Englishwoman, is reunited with her father (Gordon Stanley) who has spent 18 years unjustly imprisoned in the Bastille. On their way back home to London, she meets French aristocrat Charles Darnay (Richard Todd Adams), who wants no part of his family’s wealth or wicked life in Paris. Sydney Carton (Matt Bogart), an alcoholic cynic employed to help Darnay out of a false treason charge in England, falls for Lucy, who sees the inner good in the man — but her heart belongs to Darnay. Meanwhile, the drums of revolution build in Paris. And that’s just what happens to the three major characters in the first act.
The music by Hardin and the late Dan Schillaci doesn’t distill the action but rather delays it with mediocre material. Lives and relationships are changed instantly, yet huge stretches are given over to insipid love songs, generic anthems, embarrassing arias and unfunny “comic relief” numbers with lyrics that are painfully poor. (“Everything will be all right” is Lucie’s musical credo, which is rich, considering everything she’s seen.)
When Madame Defarge (Linda Balgord) belts out her endless life story, the hoi polloi warily tiptoe backward off the stage, so they don’t get chewed up along with the scenery. And you know things are completely out of whack when a secondary character (gravedigger Cruncher, played by Allen Kendall) gets more songs (three!) than one of the show’s heroes.
Director Lenore Shapiro stages the production as if it were a silent film, with mannered poses that border on tableau vivant. Still, the 23 thesps — including solid Broadway talent led by Bogart, Riggs and Balgord — are thoroughly committed, singing beautifully and acquitting themselves professionally. Other pros include Adams, J.B. Adams, Stanley, Kendall and Sarah Dacey Charles. The two pianists who accompany them pound the keys tirelessly throughout.
Costumes are OK, save for Lucie’s bizarre wedding dress. Designer Edward Pierce has devised an impressive singular set image: a 25-foot guillotine (though that is more representative of one city than the other).
Despite everything, Dickens’ story of devotion, sacrifice and justice has a powerful pull, and the last scene between Bogart and Angela Brinton, as a seamstress also unfairly condemned to the blade, is touching.
This could be a tale of two musicals. A second and separate attempt at turning the novel into a musical — also with a high-profile cast — is waiting in the wings following a New York invitation-only presentation this month. Whether those collaborators have mastered the musical transformation from page to stage remains to be seen.