James Barbour and Aaron Lazar in A Tale of Two Cities
(© Carol Rosegg)
James Barbour and Aaron Lazar in A Tale of Two Cities
(© Carol Rosegg)
When word got around that daily changes were being made to the new tuner A Tale of Two Cities, a waggish friend of mine said, "Maybe they're adding a third city." They haven't, but first-time composer-lyricist-librettist Jill Santoriello and her colleagues still needed to do something radical to raise their blatant attempt at cloningLes Miserables above the level of Anglo-Gallic mediocrity that now appears on the stage of the Al Hirschfeld Theatre.

Indeed, Santoriello's lack of craft has ultimately failed to make something musically rich of Charles Dickens' heartrending story, in which dissolute but clever lawyer Sydney Carton (James Barbour) falls in love with French pastry Lucie Manette (Brandi Burkhardt), but after acknowledging she's forever sold on upright aristocrat Charles Darnay (Aaron Lazar) takes gallant steps to see that the made-in-heaven match survives.

Bringing Dickens' twist-a-chapter narrative to life on Tony Walton's curved and spindly movable units isn't enough to dazzle us, and director-choreographer Warren Carlyle's decision to keep the performers rushing about as if chickens (or citizens) without their heads also doesn't take up the dramatic slack.

Primarily, though, Santoriello had to do a far, far better thing with the show's score (harped up by orchestrator-arranger Edward Kessel and three others) than she did. She's picked out no end of barbed melodies that nevertheless are the antithesis of catchy, and she's learned nothing from Stephen Sondheim -- the writer she most admires -- about crafting lyrics that are simultaneously witty and pithy or that reveal three-dimensional characters while expressing genuine emotion. Her gifts as a librettist are equally meager; she's learned nothing from Dickens' own use of startlingly evocative language. (She admits, albeit foolishly, that she's avoided immersing herself in Dickens' turn-of-marvelous-phrases by never having perused any of his 19 other novels.)

So, is there anything to praise in this misfire? The cast. Rarely have so many glorious voices been brought together for something so commonplace. Barbour has a bass-baritone he can drop to resonant depths and then modulate into airy diminuendos. At a time when so many leading men sing stunningly, Lazar may have the single best set of pipes on Broadway. Burkhardt -- cameo-lovely in David Zinn's costumes and Tom Watson's wigs -- has the kind of silvery soprano that causes strong men to faint. In supporting roles, Natalie Toro, ferociously knitting as vengeful Madame DeFarge, Kevin Earley as the forgiving Ernest DeFarge, Gregg Edelman as kindly Dr. Manette, and Nick Wyman as duplicitous John Barsad also make something of their spotlit moments -- but not everything of them, since the material so often undermines their talent.

What does it mean that I left A Tale of Two Cities humming the songs from Les Miserables? Nothing positive, I can assure you.