In recent weeks Asolo's producing artistic director Michael Donald Edwards has been working with composer-lyricist-librettist Santoriello and a cast that includes James Barbour (Broadway's Assassins, Jane Eyre) as Sydney Carton, Derek Keeling as Charles Darnay and Jessica Rush as Lucie Manette, fleshing out Dickens' "best of times" and "worst of times."
There will be two opening nights in Florida — Oct. 26 and 27. A Broadway bow is hoped for in spring 2008, but no date has been announced. A future for the show is seen as being contingent on positive reviews for this work by emerging writer Santoriello, who has been developing this project for many years.
If the musical writer is not yet a household name, the title certainly is. The first 12 words of the 19th-century novel are some of the best known in the English language: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…" And a certain guillotine scene offers this famous declaration: "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."
The novel is required reading in many American schools. When Dr. Manette is released from the French Bastille after 17 years, he must be resurrected from the brink of madness by his daughter, Lucie. In England they meet the exiled French aristocrat, Charles Darnay, whom Lucie marries, and the drunken cynic, Sydney Carton. Family secrets and political intrigue combine to draw Lucie and her family back to Paris. At the height of the Reign of Terror, the musical finds an unlikely hero in Carton, inspired by love to make an extraordinary sacrifice.
The production also has on its side director Edwards, who has staged operas and classic plays — a good start if you're working on a classic, sweeping tale like A Tale of Two Cities. Barbour is a veteran of Broadway's Beauty and the Beast, Assassins and Jane Eyre, among other shows.
Keeling is best known as a competitor on the TV audition series, "Grease: You're the One That I Want."
Performances of A Tale of Two Cities continue in Florida to Nov. 18.
Principal casting also includes Natalie Toro as Madame Defarge, Joe Cassidy as Ernest Defarge, Michael Hayward-Jones as Jarvis Lorry, Craig Bennett as Jerry Cruncher, Nick Wyman as John Barsad, Katherine McGrath as Miss Pross, Alex Santoriello as Dr. Manette with Kevin Greene as Gabelle, Tim Hartman as The Turnkey, Jodie Langel as Mrs. Cruncher, Jay Lusteck as Attorney General, Les Minski as Marquis St. Evremonde, Walter Oneil as Cronie, Rob Richardson as Gaspard, Rebecca Robbins as Vengeance, Wayne Schroder as C.J. Stryver and Janine DiVita as a Young French Woman.
The producers for the commercial production that is expected to emerge from this not-for-profit tryout are executive producers Barbra Russell and Ron Sharpe and producers Sharon A. Fordham, Theatre Associates/David Sonnenberg, The Monagle Group, Fanok Entertainment and Vincent Russell.
The 25-actor, $12 million show has book, music and lyrics by Jill Santoriello, who fell in love with the Dickens novel — about lovers, family, friends and rebels in London and Paris during the French Revolution — when she was in her teen years. Santoriello is a commercial musical theatre newcomer whose day job for years has been in programming for Showtime Networks. She is an alumnus of The BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop.
Warren Carlyle is the choreographer.
The creative team includes Tony Walton (scenic design), David Zinn (costume design), Richard Pilbrow (lighting design) and Carl Casella and Domonic Sack (sound design). Wendy Bobbit Cavett is musical supervisor. Musical direction is by Jerry Steichen; orchestrations are by Edward B. Kessel and Bob Krogstad.
The performance schedule in Florida is Tuesday-Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday matinees at 2 PM, plus added weekday and weekend matinees throughout the run.
Tickets in Florida range $18-$56.
Although A Tale of Two Cities is said to be Broadway-aimed, that goal is contingent on a number of factors — including an available Broadway theatre.
Set during the French Revolution and bouncing between London and Paris, A Tale of Two Cities "is the recounting of one of the most electrifying love stories ever written told against the backdrop of one of the most terrifying eras in human history," according to the producers. "The musical's sweeping score embodies the emotional pyrotechnics that ceaselessly explode throughout the show's breathtaking two hours. This is an emotionally drenched evening that encompasses unconscionable conspiracies, life-threatening schemes, countless betrayals, secret designs, complete political upheaval, pre-meditated mass murder, mob violence, survival against inhuman odds, unconditional love, unrequited love, indescribable love, heroic courage, breathless bravery and human sacrifice."
Director Edwards' resume includes The Barber of Seville and Aida for the Metropolitan Opera, new productions of Un Ballo in Maschera and Carmen for Opera San Jose, and many resident opera, musical and play stagings around the country and in his native Australia (at The Australian Opera, among other companies).
In July 2006, the busy Edwards took over as producing artistic director of Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota.
In its development, the musical A Tale of Two Cities was a finalist in the Eugene O'Neill Center Musical Theatre Workshop and was heard in a premiere symphonic concert in Indianapolis featuring a 40-piece orchestra and a 50-voice chorale (narrated by Richard Kiley).
A 23-track concept recording of the musical was released in 2002 and is currently available throughout the U.S. and Europe. The CD features 56 vocalists including Bryce Dallas Howard and such Broadway performers as Paul Castree, J. Mark McVey, Christiane Noll, Peter Samuel, Alex Santoriello, Tim Shew, Natalie Toro and Nick Wyman, as well as musicians from the Indianapolis Symphony and New Jersey Philharmonic Orchestra.
Santoriello calls the show a traditional book musical that is not all-sung — it's not a "pop opera." A casual listener of the concept recording will hear music and lyrics in the lush pop tradition of Les Miz, Jane Eyre, The Phantom of the Opera and The Scarlet Pimpernel.
A fan of the Rodgers and Hammerstein tradition (and later of Stephen Sondheim), Santoriello said she thought years ago (when she was a high-schooler, in fact) that "A Tale of Two Cities" would make a great musical.
She wasn't alone. There have been countless international musical versions of the story over the past century, though none has become a widely-known commercial hit.
In 1987, Santoriello, who is a self-taught musician, used songs she wrote for a formative version of the show to audition and get into the prestigious BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop.
What about "A Tale of Two Cities" speaks most strongly to Santoriello?
"Love being stronger than hate," the writer previously told Playbill.com. "And how heroes come out of the strangest places."