A new musical version of "A Tale of Two Cities" at the Woodland Hills Theatre naturally brought to mind Charles Dickens' immortal opening lines: "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times." In this case, the words fit the show itself as much as the turbulent years leading up to the French Revolution.
In his novel, Dickens provided the true stuff of melodrama: confused identities, political upheaval, family squabbles, true love. It seems perfectly suited to the sweeping style that has become so popular in musical theater post-Andrew Lloyd Webber. The book and music by Jerry Cahill and Jim Ineson, however, only sporadically rose to the occasion.
The opening number indicated what was to come. The song, "Times," was clever enough in construction, setting up the gaping divide between the classes. On opposite parts of the stage, the poor begged for money while the rich danced the minuet. The problem was that the full chorus had all the vocal power of a small church choir. Bonnie Robertson, who otherwise captured the wicked power of revolutionary leader Madam Defarge, could barely be heard.
The situation was reversed at the end of Act I, when degenerate lawyer Sydney Carton (Tim Dewitt) acknowledged his doomed love for Lucie Manette (Ginger Pauley). If any character ever needed to sing in a minor key, it was depressed, alcoholic, cynical Sydney. Instead, Cahill and Ineson gave him a hokey pop ballad, "The Dark Side.'
Incredibly, that didn't stop Dewitt from rousing everyone in the audience with his powerful singing and passionate rendering. As intermission began, dozens in the audience scanned their programs to answer the question, "Who was that?" (Turns out he's a producer for a local cable show who got his master's at the Eastman School of Music.)
Dewitt, clearly, was one of a handful of ringers in "A Tale of Two Cities," which the otherwise amateur Woodland Hills Theatre produced under a contract with Actors' Equity.
Otherwise, the play didn't get much beyond its community theater upbringing. There was no producer. The music was prerecorded. The director and the co-writer performed in the show (a mistake), and the stage is in the fellowship hall of the First United Methodist Church of Canoga Park. One doesn't expect rotating sets, laser lights or surround sound. Fair enough.
That said, the set could have been painted something other than flat gray. A stereo speaker poked visibly through a wall in the old Bastille. And the lights placed directly behind the audience made the seating area so consistently bright that the audience didn't realize when the lights went up to signal intermission.
Don Nelson's costumes, however, were top-notch: rough peasant attire for the poor and lush velvets and silks for the wealthy. Their lavishness made the stage seem that much more bare.
The show is also something of a work-in-progress, ending with the storming of the Bastille. In this production's cliff-hanger, Defarge vowed revenge against Lucie and her beloved Charles Darnay as they married. Maybe that means there is time for refinement before the whole show hits the boards.
Cahill and Ineson's music jumped back and forth between traditional musical theater and pop-rock, and the switches were too jarring. When Jon Berry, as the Marquis d'Evermonde, leaped into a rockabilly tune, the audience didn't want to follow.
The writers also could stand to polish their lyrics, which often bordered on insipid. In "Imagine Now," for instance," Lucie and Charles sang to one another: "Imagine I'm in love with you / Is that so hard to see? / Imagine I'm in love with you / And you're in love with me."
Still, there were clever moments, such as "Two Tango," again featuring Dewitt and the comic Jim Miller. "Time Is on Our Side," too, was effectively eerie. Other songs, however, could easily be shortened, a few cut altogether, as will undoubtedly be necessary when a third act is added.
Perhaps then, this new musical will be a far, far better thing.
"A Tale of Two Cities," at the Woodland Hills Theatre, 22700 Sherman Way, West Hills. Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2:30 p.m.; through May 30. $15. (818) 884-1907. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.