Just kidding actually, it is just A Tale of Two Cities, though I don't doubt that everyone concerned would like to catch the same lightning in a bottle that hit Oliver! It is a musical, it is based on the Charles Dickens novel, and it just started previews at the Al Hirschfeld Theater on 45th. I watched it from what is surely the worst seat I have ever sat in (first row, last seat on the right), in a fairly distinguished history of bad rush seats. It's not just because I'm getting older that I don't feel like rushing anymore.
So that with my partial view and wildly craned neck, when I tell you that the show firmly held my attention (I won't say enthralled, but quite reasonably close) for its entire 2h45min, you know it means something. Really good music and really good orchestration, wonderful cast, gorgeous costumes, you know the drill. It's Broadway, after all; what show, especially a risky new one, is going to have an awful cast? Music, on the other hand, with a new show, not always a given. I was impressed by the book; it's really quite well adapted, with a couple of plot holes showing where they made changes and then never fixed continuity. The lyrics are not all memorable. But I think it's going to play.
It's not going to escape the comparisons to Les Miserables. Bad enough that it's set largely in Paris during a revolution (this one the real French Revolution), both feature love triangles centered on curly-haired blondes and an ex-con father figure. Throw in the fact that the show uses Cockney accents (for Englishmen at least, not the Thenardiers) and that the musical numbers heavily rely on big, belting ensembles, and you're pretty much doomed. They might as well have thrown in a rotating stage while they were at it.
But they didn't. Tony Walton instead provided two-story scaffolds that get wheeled on and off and combined in creative ways. No glitches there, and they're not loud when moved, either. They work beautifully for creating small spaces within the Hirschfeld's pretty sizable stage and for scattering the ensemble for the big company numbers, like Darnay's trials. Those trials, by the way, are some of the longer numbers in the show, which often feels like a lot of very short songs pasted together. If it's Les Mis, it's Les Mis without "Castle on a Cloud" and "On My Own" and all those other torch songs. Oh yes, "Stars," "I Dreamed a Dream," oh god, it's all coming back.
Really, though, you want a big torch song when you have a male lead as compelling as James Barbour, whose charisma pretty much shone out from his first entrance being wheeled on in a drunken haze behind a desk. It's a good thing, too, since Sydney Carton, the dissolute antihero, is the heart of the novel and here even more critically so with the sentimental pandering to the audience by having him kiss Lucie and have a cutesy prayer scene with little Lucie, etc. (Look, it's a musical.) I freely confess I am not familiar with his work, but he was very funny when he needed to be, and he has a really beautiful voice, best shown off in "I Can't Recall." Two of his other big songs end with falsettos (like Jean Valjean, if you're going there), which is a vague dislike of mine. The other two of the love triangle also have beautiful voices, with a former Miss New York, Brandi Burkhardt, making her Broadway debut as Lucie. I have a feeling it will be a long-running one. Go help them out.
ETA: Forgot to add that Barbour is blogging the preview process. That's interesting in and of itself. It did show tonight -- big lighting miscue, several sound level issues, and most sadly for me, a fallen hat right in my face for the last scene, though that can happen anytime.