Who says you can't walk out of a Broadway musical humming the score anymore? My subway ride home from "A Tale of Two Cities" was filled with fond musical memories, as stirring martial songs of revolution jostled for primacy with plaintive laments sung by young lovers torn asunder as the turmoil of 18th-century France boiled over.
A subsequent look at my Playbill, alas, confirmed that the songs in my head were all from "Les Miserables." The memories of "Two Cities," Jill Santoriello's pell-mell pageant of bad wigs, worse lyrics, and a handful of decent melodies, were a bit dimmer despite being some two decades fresher.
On one level, this is not inappropriate; Charles Dickens's 1859 page-turner, after all, has plenty to say about the dangers of memory. Its restoration saves and then crushes Dr. Alexandre Manette after 17 years of unjust imprisonment in the Bastille, while the ever-knitting Madame Defarge, who has neither forgotten nor forgiven her own circumstances from that same period, commemorates a constantly growing list of the doomed.
But Ms. Santoriello — who has been working on the score, lyrics, and book since 1986, the heyday for pop-opera treatments of this ilk — and director/choreographer Warren Carlyle get bogged down in finding room for all the heroism and squalor and vengeance. By the end, "Two Cities" chugs along like a student scrambling to finish the assigned reading before the test, dragging its hard-working cast along. And as you may recall, material imparted in such a fashion tends to fly out of one's head as quickly as it came in. (It also means skipping pages: One character's rather convoluted return is never explained, perhaps owing to frantic trims and rewrites.)
At least she offers a few diverting melodies along the way. To say her score considerably outshines her book and lyrics is meant as only a slightly backhanded compliment. (An example of the latter: "And yet dolls can be beautiful. / They live within a different world, / So easy on the eye. / But careful not to touch.") Her martial anthems and plush ballads are parceled out more or less equitably among its half dozen lead characters, and while the music becomes a bit roamy and unresolved in its more subdued moments, it soon reverts to an unexceptional but competent wash of major-key heroism and unrequited love.
Act 1 is given over almost entirely to the comely Lucie Manette (Brandi Burkhardt) and her various London suitors, chief among them the dissolute ironist Sydney Carton (James Barbour) and his near look-alike, the self-exiled French aristocrat Charles Darnay (Aaron Lazar). The tug of history — represented by Lucie's father, Alexandre (an underused Gregg Edelman) — ultimately pulls these characters and many others to Paris, where Ernest Defarge (Kevin Earley) and his merciless wife (Natalie Toro) await the chance to unleash the French Revolution in all its gory splendor.
Just as Tony Walton's skeletal two-story set spins and reconfigures into a variety of interiors, these characters intermingle through a series of coincidences that stretch credulity even by Dickensian standards. Ms. Santoriello packs these twists in by eschewing the typical sung-through format and giving her characters actual chunks of dialogue. This proves to be a mixed blessing, as much of the book consists of breathless exposition and jokes.
Yes, jokes. Unlike Victor Hugo or Gaston Leroux or Wilkie Collins or the other authors whose overstuffed novels have launched so many pop operas, Dickens took his humor seriously. Rare was the character whose affect and/or circumstances weren't leavened with a healthy dose of wit. (The ceaselessly saintly Lucie was and is an exception.)
And while most of the 1980s pop operas screeched to a halt for the occasional bit of tavern bawdry, Ms. Santoriello and Mr. Carlyle attempt to do right by the source material and maintain a comic voice throughout "Two Cities." Even the celebrated opening line — "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times" — floats in as a gag before being reiterated far less inventively in song. There's just one catch: The jokes aren't funny. In lieu of Dickens's scalpel thrusts at the pieties and hypocrisies of society are a series of ham-fisted gags about mistletoe and French hygiene.
The vast majority of the performers, nearly all of them "Les Miserables" alums, somehow acquit themselves. Ms. Burkhardt and especially Mr. Lazar breathe some life into their suffocatingly virtuous characters, and Nick Wyman (as the inexplicably resurrected John Barsad) leads a reliable supporting cast.
The most noteworthy performances find themselves battling against the reductive conception of their roles. This Sydney Carton is more of an endearing sot than the wastrel "incapable of all the higher and better flights of men" that Dickens so memorably described, but Mr. Barbour's robust baritone and flashes of self-loathing go a long way toward masking this. And the equally powerful Ms. Toro grapples less successfully with the creators' unnecessarily histrionic take on Madame Defarge, whose ice-in-the-veins cunning has been replaced with wild-eyed bloodlust.
"A Tale of Two Cities" is hardly the best of pop operas or the worst of pop operas. It moves fast and reaches for an admirable stage poetry in its final moments. And to be fair, selective memory can overinflate its predecessors; "Les Miserables," easily the best of its genre, had its own share of clunky lyrics and stale comedy. All the same, it was a far, far, far better place we went then than we go now.
Open run (302 W. 45th St., between Eighth and Ninth avenues, 212-239-6200).