A Tale of Two Cities: The Musical shouldn’t exist—outside of a Simpsons episode—for so many reasons: Is Broadway really in need of more rag-clad French peasants clutching muskets as they sing rousing anthems about class warfare? Can anyone get away with a literal-minded yet casually faithless adaptation of source material this familiar? And hasn’t the age of the large-scale megamusical passed, anyway?
It has, more or less. And Tale is not so much its epitaph as its Beatlejunk, the looping noise at the end of the LP—or, to put it in contemporary terms, a kind of doting YouTube tribute unnaturally inflated to Broadway proportions. The show is as plucky as it is inept, but it’s also a million times less cynical than, say, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Frank Wildhorn’s low-cal gloss on Les Misérables. Then again, Wildhorn also wrote actual songs; Tale composer-lyricist-librettist Jill Santoriello, on the other hand, writes what sound like lavishly orchestrated vamps on Stephen Foster ditties: sweetly insubstantial underscoring, incidental in every sense, with workmanlike rhymes sprinkled on top. There are, according to the program, individual numbers in this show, but the clichés in which those very light motifs are distilled—“If Dreams Came True,” “Out of Sight, Out of Mind”—fuse them into a single, sugary mass, like a bag of melted Jolly Ranchers.
And yet there’s a beating heart in all this musty wiggery, and it belongs, intriguingly, to James Barbour (Beauty and the Beast, Assassins), recalled to Broadway after a January conviction for statutory rape threatened to banish him forever. Perhaps with that in mind, Barbour throws himself into the role of Sydney Carton, the aimless, degenerate French lawyer who, in Charles Dickens’s original Tale, just happens to resemble (physically, at least) virtuous, abdicated aristocrat Charles Darnay (Aaron Lazar), the putative hero. Carton, of course, is the more interesting character, but this adaptation wastes far too much stage time and musical noodling on the cardboard-thin Darnay and his beatified wife, Lucie Manette (Brandi Burkhardt), the angel of redemption both men adore. It’s when the exiled Frenchman returns home to rescue an old servant and finds himself in the teeth of the French Revolution, embodied by the vengeful Madame Defarge (Natalie Toro, Les Miz’s original Eponine), that Carton steps in to save the day.
Exactly how Carton does that, of course, is the reason why Tale is a classic. (Nineteenth-century spoiler alert: He takes Darnay’s place at the guillotine.) Barbour’s Carton is not exactly Dickens’s “man of good abilities and good emotions, incapable of their directed exercise … sensible of the blight on him, and resigning himself to let it eat him away.” He’s a life-loving libertine who slurs and staggers, strikes goofy, rock-fop poses, and looks almost nothing like Lazar’s Darnay—a bit problematic for the climactic plot twist. Purists might blanch at the leading-man testosterone and made-for-TV “hero” moments injected here, but Carton’s guillotine epiphany on the meaning of sacrifice and brotherhood blossoms into a far, far better (and far, far less bathetic) moment than any reasonable critic would expect. It’s a flash of pure theatrical honesty, born, perhaps, of a redemption-hungry actor’s total commitment to an inherently silly show, and an inherently silly show’s guileless commitment to itself.
This modest, momentary triumph of Tale’s deeply dumb production is all the proof you need that the great stories really are immortal. Dickens has survived worse, and will again. The same goes for Shakespeare, though he fares much better in the hands of dramatist-critic Robert Brustein, whose The English Channel—now unfolding on the tiny Abingdon Theatre stage—is a brainy confection of revisionist Bardolatry. Cunningly wrought, by turns pedantic and heartfelt, Brustein’s partially versified, 90-minute pageant of the Bard’s “plague years” (spent holed up in a tavern, writing sonnets) features a version of the fictive conceit from Shakespeare in Love. But instead of Gwyneth Paltrow, the young and not yet brilliant Will (Stafford Clark-Price) dances a pas de deux with his then-greater rival, Christopher Marlowe (a luminous Sean Dugan, utterly at ease with Brustein’s difficult meter). They’re part of the intrigue-laced Elizabethan drama Establishment: forever adapting, borrowing, and stealing each other’s work in a never-ending circuit party of hyperaroused ambition. The Marlowe-Shakespeare tangle is complicated by the frisky Earl of Southampton (Brian Robert Burns, perhaps a shade too queeny) and court poetess Emilia Lanier (Lori Gardner)—the alleged “fair Lord” and “Dark Lady” of the sonnets. In the end, Marlowe is sacrificed, and his muse flits to Shakespeare: Art, Brustein says, is both whorish and immortal, and immortal precisely because it’s whorish. If you’re lucky enough to be cuckolded by Shakespeare, well, you could do far, far worse.