Stage Door: A Tale of Two Cities, Small Craft Warnings

05/25/2011 12:45 pm ET

Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities begins with these memorable words: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness..." Set in Paris and London during the late 18th century, Two Cities captures the period of the French Revolution, rife with social and political upheaval. A ruthless monarchy has been challenged and cries of liberty, equality and fraternity pierce the air. If it sounds familiar on the Broadway front; it is.

Les Miz covers similar terrain, though A Tale of Two Cities enjoys a more streamlined execution. It's got a rousing score, the company is first-rate and the story's noble sacrifice, beautifully realized by Jill Santoriello, doesn't leave a dry eye in the house.

Now playing at the Al Hirschfeld Theater, A Tale of Two Cities risks inevitable comparisons to Les Miz. In fact, it has five of the same performers, including Natalie Toro, Aaron Lazar and Kevin Earley, and borrows, in part, its staging. In short, if you liked Les Miz, you're the natural audience for A Tale of Two Cities.

The story begins when Dr. Manette (Gregg Edelman) leaves the Bastille after an illegal 17-year imprisonment and escapes to England. He's reunited with his daughter Lucie (Brandi Burkhardt), who falls for Charles Darney (Aaron Lazar), the nephew of a cruel French aristocrat (Les Minski). Dickens envelopes several key characters in the love affair, including Sidney Carton (James Barbour), a drunken lawyer who delivers some of the musical's most affecting lines.

As family secrets arise, all three are caught up in the Revolution's excesses. Indeed, the story is twofold: The happy family in England is juxtaposed with the unrest in France, championed by Madame Therese Defarge (Natalie Toro) and her husband Ernest (Kevin Farley.) As radical calls for citizenship and inalienable rights sweep France, the novel's epic themes unfold on stage. What's so moving about the production is its emotional call to arms; it examines the nature of heroics - on both the personal and political fronts - while delivering an entertaining and thoughtful musical.

In fact, such traditional book musicals are getting rarer on Broadway. A Tale of Two Cities is a bold undertaking, a stark reminder that noble ideals can be perverted by anger and chaos. Barbour is clearly relishing his role, as is Toro. Director Warren Carlyle gets the most out of his cast, aided by exquisite lighting and stirring music. This is an ambitious undertaking that hits all the right notes.

Sadly, the much more intimate Small Craft Warnings doesn't. The rarely seen Tennessee Williams play at the Main Stage Theater is set in a seaside bar in Southern Calif. It's the early Seventies, and a group of misfits take refuge inside. Small Craft has many of the trouble souls who usually populate Williams' landscapes, including a cynical homosexual and his much-younger, fresh-from-Iowa pick-up.

In the original run, Williams played the alcoholic doctor, directed by Robert Altman. And the White Horse Theater Co., which is presenting the production, is known for staging successful revivals. The problem here isn't the script but the cast, which is second-rate. The role of Leona, the angry beautician, is played at one level: shrieking. The first act is so unnerving performance-wise, it's hard to stay for the second. The play deserves better.