Comparisons are inevitable between 1980s warhorse “Les Miserables” and Jill Santoriello’s ambitious new musical reinvention of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.” The two shows have some similar settings (the French Revolution in “Tale” vs. a violent student demonstration in “Les Miz”) while sharing a focus on the power and importance of love and redemption. But while “Tale” has much to recommend it, the new tuner is not yet ready to storm Broadway, as its commercial producers are planning to do later this season after the world premiere run at Asolo Repertory Theater in Sarasota, Fla.
The musical style, brisk direction by Michael Donald Edwards, fluid musical staging by Warren Carlyle and impressive design of the show — with its constantly moving two-tiered towers — serve as occasional reminders of the earlier hit. Even the first-act finale, the vibrant and rousing “Until Tomorrow,” wherein the French peasants set the stage for revolution, echoes the style of “One Day More” at the close of the first act in “Les Miz.”
Santoriello has crafted some pretty melodies and a few comic songs (at least one of them unnecessary) matched with lyrics generally better at revealing character traits than advancing the story. But in both script and direction, the show needs more dramatic tension and greater emotional punch.
In “Les Miz,” it’s Jean Valjean who redeems his life. In “Tale,” it’s Sydney Carton (James Barbour), who sacrifices himself for the young woman he loves but can’t have. The author, lyricist and composer has placed her focus on a minor figure until the final chapters of the novel, while building up his side of a love triangle with Lucie Manette (Jessica Rush) and her husband, the French aristocrat Charles Darnay (Derek Keeling), whose life is threatened by the angry peasants.
The shift doesn’t always work because Sydney, a melancholy drunk, is not someone the audience can easily root for, though Barbour infuses so much feeling, warmth and disgust into his every moment that he makes the alterations seem viable. And his rich baritone quickly makes audiences fall for him.
In this telling, the audience needs to be more emotionally invested in Darnay and his efforts to save himself and be with his family. But Santoriello has minimized the role, and Keeling is unable to do much more than make him a warm and dashing figure.
Santoriello also has given a larger role to the vengeful Madame Therese Defarge (Natalie Toro). She may sit quietly early on but comes on like a tigress in Toro’s powerhouse performance, making one understand the woman’s unwavering call to arms against the rich.
The strong cast features impressive performances down the line, including from Rush, who makes Lucie more than a stereotypical ingenue, and Joe Cassidy, whose Defarge provides a strong counterbalance to his wife. Nick Wyman is comically dastardly as Barsad; Katherine McGrath oozes humanity and sarcasm as wry nanny Miss Pross; and Les Minski makes one want to send his despicable Marquis to the guillotine. Alex Santoriello is lovingly compassionate as Lucie’s long-imprisoned father, Dr. Alexandre Manette.
The show’s final moments, which should have the greatest emotional wallop, are dampened by the teary performance of Alex Howley as a seamstress who befriends Sydney.
The stage looks beautiful thanks to Tony Walton’s set, which transforms from bloody Paris streets to London, courtrooms, palaces and back again with graceful elegance. Walton’s work is nicely matched by David Zinn’s elegant costumes and given the proper touches of light, dark and blood red from Richard Pilbrow’s lighting.
As in the Dickens novel, there’s a story here that can certainly touch audiences. But the creators need to develop more drama to make it compelling enough to match the beauty of the design and power of the performances.