A Tale of Two Cities – North West End Review

Welcome to The North West Premier production of Jill Santoriello’s Musical of the Dickens classic, A Tale Of Two Cities.

With book, music and lyrics all by Santoriello, she is one of only two female composers to hold such credits on Broadway. And with her US successes under her belt, the Musical is now finding its way into Europe. As far as I can tell, never actually having heard of this Musical before, there has been only one UK professional production mounted, and very few Amateur companies have picked up the gauntlet, but those that have, have always had success with it.

It was a rather brave move on the part of Rochdale Musical Theatre Company (amateur) to be the ones to bring this Musical to the North West. After having watched it, it certainly is not an easy musical to produce and the casting must have been rather difficult too. There is the need for two young men, excellent singers, to look similar to each other as they swap identities towards the end. Did their braveness pay off? – Yes, of course it did!

The Musical follows Charles Dickens’s storyline very closely. The only difference being that Madame DeFarge takes on the role of narrator as well as acting in it, and even quoting sections of the novel. I found this very odd, and unnecessary. It would have been much more ‘real’ and I would have been able to engage in the story more had I been able to watch it unfold without having to hear what Dickens had to say about any particular character! However, that’s Santoriello and not Rochdale!

The set was very good. We were presented with two two-storey house frame structures which were moved around the stage for each scene, along with two brick wall panels. Occasionally the additional extra piece of set was brought in when required, but these were always kept to the minimum. It was a good idea and worked well. It just got a little wearisome after seeing this done after EVERY scene… and there were MANY scenes! The use of the drape to light flashback scenes behind it was lovely and that worked really nicely.

The costumes were generally excellent, and hair styles / wigs were first rate. The lighting I thought could have been a little more imaginative, and the spotlights were late with their cues a couple of times, leaving main characters singing in the dark for too long! One problem also which happened several times was that when cast members were acting and singing on the first floor of the houses, they were hidden to certain members of the audience at certain times due to the central wooden support.

But what of the acting / singing? In all honesty then I take my cap off to all of you! The quality of both acting and singing on display yesterday was phenomenal! The two male leads (the look-alikes) of Sydney Carlton and Charles Darnay, played respectively by Peter Norris and Phil Swift were truly astounding. Both had wonderful and powerful voices, great stage presence and they also actually did look alike too! Love interest (and rivalry) was provided for in the form of Lucie Manette played by Rachel Brierley. Once again, a beautiful singing voice, and a lovely natural actress. Ernest DeFarge {Martin Bradbury} and his wife Madame DeFarge {Dawn Leigh} both gave very noteworthy performances; and I loved the plain and honest sincerity of Dr. Manette {John Huyton} and the lovely little cameo of Miss Pross {Ann Stubbs}. They were all more than ably assisted by more main characters and a full chorus. The Musical does call for a very large cast. Maybe one of the reasons that professionals have shied away from it.

I think though, the main reason we have yet to see major productions of this Musical mounted in the UK is that it is just far too similar to Les Misérables. It has been nicknamed, ‘The Poor Man’s Les Mis’, and I really can only agree with that sentiment. The parallels are astounding. No point in going through them here, but it simply cannot be denied that the two are incredibly similar, and Les Misérables is a far better show in every respect.

With this in mind then, I really do not understand the director’s (Howard G. Raw) or choreographer’s (uncredited) decision to end Act 1 with what can only be described as a plagiarised version of ‘Do You Hear The People Sing’. The same phalanx formation, similar marching steps, and a similar picture ending with arms raised high holding their weapons in defiance.

The choreography, what little there was, could be better ascribed as chorus movement, and this minimalistic approach worked well. The only moves I found very messy and repetitive were those in the court scene where the chorus were forever standing and sitting on their every line.

The Musical Direction (Richard Lord) was solid and his band produced a very good and together sound. They worked well with the principals allowing them to use the music to maximum dramatic effect and it was a good combination for the ensemble. (I’ve lost the small piece of paper addendum with the actual combination of instruments and players’ names, sorry!)

Rochdale Musical Theatre Company have produced a tour-de-force Musical and they should be extremely proud of their creation. Your brave move paid off, and you can certainly put this down as one of ‘the best of times’! I really hope to be able to come along to your next production, which will be Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at The Heywood Civic Centre next February.

Reviewer: Mark Dee

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