PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: A Tale of Two Cities — Comes the Revolution

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: A Tale of Two Cities — Comes the Revolution
 
Once the curtain, and the guillotine, fell Sept. 18 on A Tale of Two Cities — once the rabble on stage took their bows for restoring Liberte! Egalite! Fraternite! to the land — the audience at the Al Hirschfeld broke en masse and made a mad dash by bus, train and town car for Wall Street, where the monied American aristocrats used to hang out, for a little post-show boogieing at Cipriani's lower Manhattan branch.
Brandi Burkhardt, James Barbour, Aaron Lazar, Natalie Toro, Gregg Edelman, Mackenzie Mauzy, Kevin Earley, Catherine Missal, Warren Carlyle and Jill Santoriello.
Brandi Burkhardt, James Barbour, Aaron Lazar, Natalie Toro, Gregg Edelman, Mackenzie Mauzy, Kevin Earley, Catherine Missal, Warren Carlyle and Jill Santoriello. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

I opted to sub it and therefore arrived, shot from an underground cannon, at my front-door battle station a good half hour before tidal waves of tuxedoes and elegant attire finally swept forth and saturated Cipriani's lavishly spacious dining area. Seasoned first-nighters, dressed traditionally for the evening, were impressed with the influx of Florida "old money" who duded up in four-figured frocks and tuxes like the good old days. Bellinis and hors d'oeuvres awaited, democratically, for one and all.

Twenty-two years in the writing, Jill Santoriello's songs and musical-book adaptation of Charles Dickens' 412-pageturner are, on a massive scale, a cautionary tale of why the high-born elite shouldn't rub the faces of the less fortunate in it.

Densely populated by Dickens with hard-to-cut cases in point, his story spills over from Paris into London of the late 18th century, ultimately and resolutely ending at that great leveler (and equalizer), the French Revolution and its attending mayhem.

At the heart of the story — albeit, late to arrive for it, after plot machinations have started churning on their inevitable path — is Sydney Carton (James Barbour), a booze-fueled barrister and lost romantic who finds redemption and love in Lucie Manette (Brandi Burkhardt). Alas, he finds all this after she has promised to wed Charles Darnay (Aaron Lazar). Darnay, by any other name, is an Evremonde, a late-blooming Englishman who has renounced his rich, nasty French roots — to unpersuaded Parisian peasants, it turns out, and so it falls to Carton to reiterate his love with noble self-sacrifice, substituting himself for Darnay on the chopping-block.

Basically, it's this triangle that twirls the narrative forward, but the sidelines are chock full of colorful Dickens grotesques—not the least of which are Madame Defarge (Natalie Toro), a hate-filled firebrand who can knit beside the guillotine and not drop a stitch; John Barsad (Nick Wyman), a shameless thief and scoundrel who gets a life-altering shot at goodness; Miss Pross (Katherine McGrath), a bossy old crone and Manette family retainer, and the despicable Marquis St. Evremonde (Les Minski), who fatally inflames the masses by hoping aloud his horses weren't injured in trampling a towheaded guttersnipe. Blanche Yurka, Walter Catlett, Edna May Oliver and Basil Rathbone had field days with these roles in M-G-M's definitive film of '35, and their counterparts munch it up accordingly. Warren Carlyle, whose only previous Broadway credits have been as Susan Stroman's "Associate Choreographer" for Oklahoma! and The Producers, scores a double Broadway debut here as choreographer and director, taking up both reins from the late Thommie (A Chorus Line) Walsh. Surprisingly, Carlyle contends that choreographing was harder, but both jobs fuse spectacularly in the first-act finale where the many characters are positioned together to underscore Act II conflicts.

This whole experience has left him a happy hyphenate, and he plans to continue with both hats. "Oh, sure," he says. "I'm working on two projects that are coming up real soon, actually." Cautiously, his lips purse. "They're not announced yet, though."

A proud new American who stills speaks with a clipped British accent, he says the hardest thing about A Tale of Two Cities was just doing it. "I think just the size of it. It's an epic production. There's just a lot of elements. There's a lot of people, there's a lot of scenery, there's a lot of lighting, there's a lot of music, there's a lot of story."

There is a lot of story, Dickens being Dickens. Did he make some short cuts entering the homestretch ? "As we worked on it, I probably cut about seven minutes out of Act I," he says, "and we rearranged things a couple of times. We took out the graveyard scene and the song, and we played with a song in Act II called 'Let Her Be a Child.' We tried it as a duet, and we tried it as a solo. Things jumped around quite a bit."

For assistant director, Carlyle tapped Michael Arden, the actor (bare, Pippin), but Arden is snapping out of it now and is resuming his acting career "hopefully soon."

Given the driving, hammer-hard beat of Santoriello's music, it's not surprising that lots of Les Miserables alums were rounded up for A Tale of Two Cities. And this starts from the top — from Ron Sharpe and Barbra Russell, the husband-and-wife who did the hiring and, indeed, executive-produced the whole shebang. They met on stage, on Broadway, as Marius and Cosette — so they are thoroughly familiar with the sound. That hooked them, and they started this march to Broadway in 1999.

"I waited nine years for this moment," Sharpe trills joyfully. "I always believed in it. I gathered all these artists. At the end of the show, it was very touching when the investors turned to me and clapped for Barbra and me. I said, 'Barbra, we didn't have to sing a note, and they applauded for us.' It was a beautiful moment for us."

The comparison to Les Miz doesn't bother him. He encourages it, if anything. "Our story's about a drunken British attorney. It has nothing to do with that other story, but if you wanna compare it, I love it. It's my favorite show of all time, Les Miz."

The next Sharpe-Russell production will be identical twin sons, arriving in February. "Sydney and Charles, right?" They already have a daughter, 13, and son, 6.

Tony Walton's unusual and functional set of wrought-irons and wooden planks has an international utilitarian feel to it and often requires Richard Pilbrow's lighting for clarification. "Well, London is blue, and Paris is red," Walton wryly simplifies.

There is not, by Walton's calculated design, a turntable of any type on the premises. "We didn't want to do that because there was already a Les Miz overlap with the French Revolution anyway, and we didn't want to do things that belonged to Les Miz. Also, we wanted to use the visceral energy of the company playing citizens of London and Paris to activate everything. If you see something moving magically, it's just moving magically, and you don't have to get involved with your own energy."

Lazar got some congratulations for actually living through a French Revolution, which he didn't two years ago, as a Drama Desk-nominated, student-uprising-doomed Enjolras, in Les Miz's Broadway revival. "I did it — I came through!" he lit up, but he admitted it wasn't an easy evening for him to perform. "I was terrified in just trying to make sure I could sing tonight because I've been so sick all this week. I even missed the show last night. It was awful. I just went home and shut up and did lots of medicine."

It must have worked: On opening night, he and Burkhardt got applause on their kissing. "Oh, did we?" he remarked, surprised. "Well, I like this Charles Darnay role. I like that he's romantic and passionate and he's a husband and a father. Like me."

Kevin Earley, who as Ernest Defarge hasn't lost his Enjolras swagger either, thought it "a magical night. It's hard on opening night to keep your nerves down and to play that story — especially for an audience like this on opening night — but I think everybody had a great focus and were really telling the story Warren Carlyle put together."

There were Thenardiers all over the stage, but Michael Hayward-Jones could only come up with three at the party — himself, Craig Bennett and Nick Wyman. "I'm fried," he offered by way of explanation, reaching wearily for his forehead. In A Tale of Two Cities, he plays Jarvis Lorry, a benevolent banker who is a far cry from the sinister priest he recently played in The Visit with Chita Rivera and George Hearn. There's no news on a Broadway transfer of that much-workshopped Kander-and-Ebb. "I talk to Chita," he said, "but we don't talk about it. We talk about other things." Given the chic dress code of the evening, Wyman passed quite plausibly in his white tie and tails. "This outfit I got from Brooks Van Horn 28 years ago when I played Freddy Eynsford-Hill on Broadway with Rex Harrison," he revealed, postscipting in a stage-whisper: "They let out the pants a little bit, but don't tell anyone that."

Clay Aiken, Constantine Maroulis, Michael Berresse, Scott Wittman and Matthew Broderick, Nilo Cruz, Marge Champion and Frank Wildhorn
photo by Aubrey Reuben

A polished comedian, Wyman sets Barsad to shining in a pretty full field of cut-ups. "I love this part, and I love this play," he admitted. "I have a wonderful time doing it. It's a very enjoyable role, a fun thing like Thenardier in Les Miz in that you're playing comic relief in a fairly serious show. But, unlike Les Miz, which is very serious, this is a lot lighter. The nice thing about Barsad is that he has an arc. He starts out a rascally kind of guy, then turns dark and a little mean there for a while. He thinks Carton is like him, then wakes up to the fact Carton is doing something he can't even conceive of doing. It changes his whole point of view. He becomes maybe a nice guy." A one-time Javert is now Dr. Alexandre Manette, the heroine's Bastille-broken father, and Gregg Edelman plays the part with a beard that's real and gray — another testament that time marches on — and one of life's little hour-gauges was on his arm. "I have my daughter with me, and my wife's on Broadway [Carolee Carmello a.k.a. Mamma Mia] right now. My son was here, but he fell asleep on the bus on the way down so he took off with my in-laws and he's on his way home."

Natalie Toro, an ex-Eponine, has been promoted (if that's the word) to the vengeful Madame Defarge, and she gives it her full-lunged all. "It has been — it is — I won't say it has been — it is the best experience of my life right now. It's pretty awesome to play a character like this and to have the audience right in the palm of your hand."

She gets in three scenes of knitting before her character mentally rounds the bend. Then another character is assigned the knitting. "Once she has said what she has to say and she's on her path, she drops the knitting. Now, she wants blood. She has tunnel vision. If you get something in your head, that's all you're thinking. Hate doesn't know boundaries, and she goes off the edge a little bit. I love this character."

Among the most faithful of the cast is William Thomas Evans, who plays the prosecutor, the attorney general in the English courtroom scene. "I've been doing it for nine years. Finally, we're here, which is incredible. This is a people's musical, and I think it's fantastic." Did he ever think it would actually get here? "Yes, I did. I always did. It was a long mountain to climb up, and I'm very happy we did it."

New to the Broadway production is Michael Halling, who, as the murderously grieving Gaspard, extracts proper revenge when his son is crushed to death by the coach of Marquis St. Evremonde. (Thanks for the blade, Madame Defarge.) And to execute his crime means transversing Walton's tricky, rickety set. No sweat, though, says he: "We're trying to make it look treacherous. It's deliberate. We call it acting."

Mackenzie Mauzy, who's the hardly seditious seamstress who precedes Carton to the axe-man, did her first reading three years ago, moved to California and rejoined the production in time for Broadway. She makes a heartfelt waif. "I think the role is so raw and honest, and I think it brings out a lot of truth about the realities of war."

The star of the evening, Barbour, is an old hand at darkly romantic souls (Rochester in Jane Eyre, Billy Bigelow in Carousel, the Beast in Beauty and the Beast), but even he has to admit Sydney Carton is special. "He's an amazing character. I'm blessed. I'm playing one of the greatest characters that's ever been written. It's a journey for me I love to play every night, and I'm so happy to do it. I could do it forever, I think."

Only recently, after years of workshopping the show, he got around to seeing what Ronald Colman did to the part. "I was blown away. He was an incredible Carton."

Is Carton's kind of naked nobility hard to play? "I was talking to Michael Hayward-Jones, and he was saying, 'Not everybody can be a Sydney Carton.' And I said, 'You know what? Everybody can be a Sydney Carton because he's just a guy. He's a guy who sees the good in himself through other people. That's something we all need to remember—that, through the eyes of others, we can see ourselves. The idea that he finds redemption and love through other people is a lesson that we can take in our world today, so I just play him like a regular guy who makes a choice based on love."

Carton's love for Lucie, which silently moves the story forward, varies nightly, according to the object of his quiet affection. "Every night, it's a little different," says Burkhardt. "I think it's important that Sydney and Lucie have a connection. It's kinda unspoken, and you don't really see her reciprocate — not in traditional ways. When Charles proposes to her, she says yes — and then she realizes 'I didn't even think of Sydney as an option.' I like the fact that it's an after-thought."

The object of Burkhardt's real-life affection, composer Frank Wildhorn, was very much in her corner on opening night, replete with the Pulitzer Prize winner he's currently collaborating with: Anna in the Tropics' Nilo Cruz. The show is called Havana, and it might just star Brandi Burkhardt. "I hope so," her fiancé confessed, "but it is too early to say right now. It would be a dream, though." And is this the show the ex-Mrs. Wildhorn worked on? "Linda [Eder] did the song," he clarified.

Aside from the Wildhorn project, Cruz has put playwriting on hold in order to do a screenplay. It is called, and about, "Castro's Daughter," and it'll keep him in Havana.

Michael Berresse has several friends in the show, but in particular Lazar, "who was my brother in The Light in the Piazza. He's a great guy and a very close pal of mine."

Berresse, who is currently represented on Broadway as a director (of [title of show]) having just played one (in A Chorus Line), says he's "writing another Broadway show for myself — not for me to star in, for me to direct. And I have a film coming out in April with Russell Crowe and Helen Mirren called 'State of Play.' I play the killer."

The original girl who can't say no, 91-year-old Celeste Holm, had a resounding Yes for the show — "I went to school in France, y'know," she asided — and Marge Champion, who turned 89 last week, was similarly bullish about the evening.

Champion is planning to participate in the Oct. 13 salute to the late choreographer Jack Cole, at Symphony Space. "Any one who has worked with Jack Cole has a story," she insisted. "Gower and I did a movie with him called 'Three for the Show,' with Betty Grable and Jack Lemmon. While we were making it, the studio boss Harry Cohn saw 'Swan Lake' for the first time and was adamant that we put the music into the movie. Jack argued against it as best he could and then gave in. I call it 'Jack's Revenge.' There I am finishing up 'Someone To Watch Over Me,' and then we go right into the 'Swan Lake' music. It was the wildest thing we ever did. I hope they use the clip."

Also attending: Tom Noonan, now a regular on Glenn Close's TV series, "Damages"; Clay Aiken, catching the show but skipping the party because he had to start another Spamalot stint the next day; Louise Hirschfeld, widow of the theatre caricaturist whose drawings line the second floor of his same-named theatre; Matthew Broderick and Scott Wittman; comedienne-producer Jamie de Roy; The League's Charlotte St. Martin ("I thought it was spectacular — big cast, big numbers — I love that"); director Jerry Zaks, Broadway-bound via a new musical called Nerds ("It's on the verge of being announced"); Constantine Maroulis, Oksama Bauil; director Vincenzo Natalie; Barry Moss, who put in two years casting A Tale of Two Cities; Maria Cuomo Cole and Ivanka Trump.

The cast of <i>Tale of Two Cities</i> takes a curtain call.
The cast of Tale of Two Cities takes a curtain call. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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