Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Review: A Tale of Two Cities

Some “Best of Times” Up There Among the Rest

By Lauren Yarger
OK, I’m a theater critic, so I’m supposed to tell you how the new mega-musical version of A Tale of Two Cities can’t quite overcome the shadow of Les Mis; how it tells the same old story; how its choreography is uninspired and how the plot-laden book and sugary exposition-filled lyrics just aren’t quite up to snuff. And while all that’s true, there’s something else I need to tell you: I liked it.

I liked it a lot, because for me Jill Santoriello’s (book, lyrics and music) treatment was revolutionary. She made me laugh and cry and finally care about the sacrifice Sydney Carton (fabulously played by James Barbour) makes in the name of love -- three things no other version, including the Dickens novel ever has done.

Tale is set in Paris and London on the eve of and during the French Revolution. Sydney, a lazy lawyer who has all but given up on himself, helps clear Charles Darnay (Aaron Lazar) of espionage charges and meets Lucie Manette (Brandi Burkhardt), daughter of Dr. Alexandre Manette (Gregg Edelman) , wrongly imprisoned by the Marquis St. Evremonde (Les Minski). Lucie nurses her father back to health, marries Darnay (who’s really a St. Evremonde, but who has renounced his aristocratic birthright) and wins the heart of Sydney, who sees in her the life he might have had. Following through on his promise to make any sacrifice necessary for her and those dearest to her (although I’m not sure that ever gets said in this version) he trades places with a condemned Darnay on the guillotine.

Brandi Burkhardt and James Barbour

Add to this Madame Therese Defarge (Natalie Toro), who with her husband Ernest (Kevin Early) knits and plots the revolution while she harbors a secret hatred for all Evremondes everywhere, Lucie’s housekeeper Miss Pross (Katherine McGrath), a banker (Michael Hayward-Jones), another lawyer in love with Lucie (Fred Inkley), a spy (Nick Wyman) an estate manager (Kevin Greene) a few grave robbers, 30 musical numbers and an ensemble of more than 20 and you still don’t have a full picture of everything that takes place. This might shed light on the difficulty in translating this saga into a stage production and why director/choreographer Warren Carlyle may have felt lost in the crowd.

The standout, without question is Barbour, whose dreamy voice and sarcastic, yet thoughtful manner give Sydney definition and allow us to see him grow from a wash-out to a man willing to give his life for another. Santoriello’s focus on Sydney’s relationship with Lucie’s daughter also gives us a broader perspective into his character. When he goes to the guillotine, you know he’s doing it as much out of love for Lucie as for her daughter and because this noble act will bring them happiness. This was a breakthrough for me, since in all other versions, the sacrifice always seems more like a last-ditch effort to make his life count for something. If Lucie didn’t weep for him in the “far, far better” scene, I sure did.

I also spent a lot of time laughing. Humor is infused throughout the show and though unexpected in a tale of revenge, blood-lust and all the rest of the “worst of times,” it works most of the time and provides some balance for an otherwise gloomy story. It also is great to sit once again in a Broadway theater (the Hirschfeld) and hear so many great voices (besides Barbour, Burkhardt, Toro, Lazar and Greene) belting their lungs out and hitting notes in the rafters, even if you can’t remember the tunes when they’re finished (ironically two of the songs are titled “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” and “I Can’t Recall.”)

At left Brandi Burkhardt in one of David Zinn's intricate gowns

All of this takes place against a wonderful backdrop staged by scenic designer Tony Walton, costume designer David Zinn and lighting designer Richard Pilbrow. Walton’s wooden two-story stick structures provide the framework for the homes, bar rooms and other interior locations. They are complimented by furnishings sparse in number, but intricate in detail, and back dropped by muted pastel panoramas of exterior locales.

Dramatic lighting creates various effects, and in the second act, Paris is aglow in a bloody red. Zinn’s costumes are extremely elaborate and detailed. Multiple textures, patterns and fabrics in variegated colors blend with the sets and lighting to complete a beautiful tapestry.

Christians also might like to know:
Relatively blood and gore free given the nature of the subject. Guillotine implied, not witnessed.


Tale of Two Cities Musical said...

I thought you might also be interested in another “Tale of Two Cities Musical” that is wending it's way to Broadway (Perhaps via Boston). This one has a distinctively low budget so far but a very singable score and an engaging book. You might want to check out some of the songs.

NewJerseyJesus said...

OK, now I really, really want to see it.

Debbie W said...

Unlike you, I loved the book and being a musical lover, I had hopes that this would be good. After reading your review, I am anxious to see it. I know I'll cry--interesting the humor though. I don't remember that in the book, but it's been years since I read it. Sounds like wonderful entertainment. Thanks for keeping us posted.
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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York in February 2018.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (, an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle. and the Episcopal Actors' Guild.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2018 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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