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NY Theater Reviews

Nick Wyman and James Barbour/PH: Sara Krulwich

THERE'S A WORLD OUT THERE

By TRAVIS STEWART

A Tale of Two Cities is not as bad as, shall we say, it could have been... There are a number of winning performances, chief among them James Barbour as Sydney Carleton.

With smash adaptations of Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol and Nicholas Nickleby as precedents, it was perhaps inevitable that someone would get around to bringing another of Charles Dicken's most popular works' A Tale of Two Cities to the Broadway stage. But the true novelistic parent of the ambitious new version just opened at the Al Hirschfeld is Victor Hugo - that is to say, Les Miz - and the results are something less than Revolutionary.

Perhaps the least "Dickensian" of Dickens' works, A Tale is a historical epic set against the background of The Terror, when French aristocrats were being shipped wholesale to the guillotine and bloodthirsty mob rule prevailed. Dickens paints Aristocrats and Jacobins in equally unflattering lights his message (as always) seems to be a plea for humanity at the interpersonal level. Love Thy Neighbor - no government or class system can cohere without that basic prerequisite. That said, this remains a fundamentally political story - and to tell a tale of torture, prisons, beheadings, distrust, espionage and terrorism without making a single connection to the world outside the theater seems an error so gross and obtuse it reduces the criticisms that follow to the status of mere quibbles. Note to producers: hello, you are on PLANET EARTH.

Apparently - like some latter day Dr. Manette - composer-lyricist-book-writer Jill Santoriello has been ensconced in a cell toiling on this show single-handedly for 21 years. The work is undeniably impressive - not just for existing, and not just as a specimen of hard-work and able craftsmanship. The show is much better than it should be, within the confines of Ms. Santoriello's artistic choices. I have seen hundreds of shows far worse. But that's pretty faint praise, is it not? To say that the show suffers in the shadow of Les Miserables is putting it mildly. Not just due to the pictures of dirty peasants storming the Bastille, but because of Santoriello's essentially derivative musical style which mixes operatic recitative, uninspired melody and extremely trite lyrics - the worst of all possible worlds. The book cleaves far more closely to the 1935 Hollywood film than to the 1859 novel, which is at the very least convenient. And the show is at least a third too long. Yet it is worth seeing for some winning performances. James Barbour is particularly moving as the cynical hero Carton also memorable is Les Minksi as the appallingly callous Marquis St. Evremonde. Yet the audience reserved its loudest cheers for a stuntman who tumbles from high in the rafters to some sort of cushion below the stage. Thus the true lesson of A Tale of Two Cities: what the mob will go for is anybody's guess.