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A Tale of Two Cities

The sheer length of Victor Hugo's doorstopper of a French Revolution saga didn't stop "Les Miserables" from being a stage sensation. Charles Dickens' similarly themed novel "A Tale of Two Cities" is about a third of the length, but this torpid new tuner version feels far, far longer. Produced and directed -- the latter term is used loosely -- by Paul Nicholas, this is going nowhere, very slowly.

With:
Sydney Carton - Michael Howe
Charles Darnay - Jonathan Ansell
Lucie Manette - Jennifer Hepburn
Madame Defarge - Jemma Alexander
Monsieur Defarge - Craig Berry
Jarvis Lorry - David Alder
Miss Pross - Pippa Winslow
Dr. Manette - John Fleming

The sheer length of Victor Hugo’s doorstopper of a French Revolution saga didn’t stop “Les Miserables” from being a stage sensation. Charles Dickens’ similarly themed novel “A Tale of Two Cities” is about a third of the length, but this torpid new tuner version feels far, far longer. Produced and directed — the latter term is used loosely — by Paul Nicholas, this is going nowhere, very slowly.

For those who missed the numerous previous incarnations, the story follows a love triangle between handsome wastrel Sydney Carton (Michael Howe), pure Lucie Manette (Jennifer Hepburn) and emigre French aristocrat Charles Darnay (Jonathan Ansell). Charles marries Lucie but as revolution takes wing in France, patriotism overcomes him and he returns, only to be captured by devilish peasant Madame Defarge (Jemma Alexander). Transformed by unrequited love and newfound duty, Sydney follows them to France where he makes the ultimate sacrifice.

That’s the main thrust, but as is typical of Dickens, the narrative is assisted by further necessary characters, color, incident and coincidence. In other words, there’s an awful lot of plot and boy, does David Soames and lyricist Steven David Horwich’s leaden, tension-free book let us know it.

The cast members have good voices but if any of them can act there’s hardly any opportunity, since from the opening flashback onward their dialogue is almost entirely expository and the book scenes threadbare. A power-ballad arrives so they emote, but that’s it. Nicholas is a highly experienced musical theater actor but his direction appears to consist of equipping each of them with a single characteristic — Alexander’s Madame Defarge is vicious, Ansell’s Charles is posh, etc — and then getting them to underline it by playing everything downstage and out front.

Composer David Pomeranz has an impressive back catalog of songs recorded by everyone from Barry Manilow to Isaac Hayes, but his anodyne theater tunes meander and lack an original voice. His courtroom numbers are slightly more ambitious but sound like Gilbert and Sullivan. And it’s unfortunate that the big duet and chorus number “From Afar” is shaped so similarly to “One Day More” that it’s the “Les Miz” score that you come out humming.

John Cameron, the orchestrator of that show, is on hand again here, but his arrangement for two onstage grand pianos allows little space for a coherent set design. Sad to say, what little atmosphere the show creates comes from the backlighting, haze and evocative blue gel of Howard Hudson’s hard-working lighting plot.

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A Tale of Two Cities

Charing Cross Theater, London; 275 seats; £29.50 $47 top

Production: A PNPF Associates in association with Ovation presentation of a musical in two acts music by David Pomeranz, lyrics by Steven David Horwich, book by Horwich and David Soames from the novel by Charles Dickens. Directed by Paul Nicholas. Musical direction, Robert Wicks; choreography, Racky Plews.

Creative: Set, Charlie Camm; costumes, Suzi Lombardelli; lighting, Howard Hudson; sound, David Gates; arrangements, John Cameron; musical supervision, Philip Shute; production stage management, Rachael Conlon. Opened, April 18, 2012. Reviewed, April 17. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN.

Cast: Sydney Carton - Michael Howe
Charles Darnay - Jonathan Ansell
Lucie Manette - Jennifer Hepburn
Madame Defarge - Jemma Alexander
Monsieur Defarge - Craig Berry
Jarvis Lorry - David Alder
Miss Pross - Pippa Winslow
Dr. Manette - John FlemingWith Neil Canfer, Miles Eagling, Chris Gilling, Tom Murphy, Isabelle Rose, Mark Slowey, Matt Stevens, Rachel Wicking.

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