This is a tale of three actors having a Dickens of a time in a play at Hale Centre Theatre.
But it's not Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," although there is a similar theme of redemption. Nor is it "Oliver," although some of the characters are orphans, as so often they are in Dickens' work. And it's definitely not Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables," although an angry French mob with firearms does storm the stage.
It is the regional premiere of "A Tale of Two Cities" opening Wednesday at the theater in West Valley City. The musical, which debuted on Broadway in 2008, is based on the 1859 novel by Dickens, one of his most famous works.
"The book is really, really well-written, which isn't hard to believe considering the original source for the material," said Casey Elliott, one of three Top of Utah actors cast in leading roles.
Set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution, the musical is an inspiring tale of social injustice, love and hate, light and dark, revenge and redemption. But at its heart, "it's a love story," said Jill Santoriello, the playwright, lyricist and composer who lives in New York City.
"It's the story of an alcoholic, cynical English attorney who doesn't believe in anything," Santoriello said. "He meets this woman and meets this family and through these people, he completely changes his life and his point of view. He ends up doing something extraordinarily heroic, and it's all done in the name of love."
Enter Mr. Carton
That character's name is Sidney Carton, and Elliott, of South Ogden, and Kyle Olsen, of Fruit Heights, are double-cast as the inscrutable Carton -- who utters one of Dickens' most famous lines: "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."
Elliott graduated from Weber State University with a degree in business administration, but he is no stranger to the stage. He has appeared in several local productions; was Daniel in "Daniel and the Lions" in the popular Liken Bible DVD series; and played Radames in "Aida" at Hale and a national tour of that show, as well as a tour to China.
In fact, Elliott was rehearsing for the "Aida" China tour in New York City when he saw "A Tale of Two Cities" on Broadway.
"I totally got wrapped up in the story and the emotion of the story," Elliott said. "I was just so moved. It was one of the best shows I'd ever seen, not just from a singing and acting perspective, but also from an emotional perspective."
When Elliott learned that Hale was planning to premiere the show, he signed up for vocal lessons to train his voice in a more classic Broadway style, rather than the rock-flavored singing he's been doing in "Aida."
"It's a dream role," Elliott said. "I thought, if I'm going to do this, I'm going to do it right."
Audiences will also be familiar with Olsen, a WSU student majoring in music and theater.
Olsen has appeared in "The Drowsy Chaperone" at Hale, as well as WSU's "Urinetown," "Sleepy Hollow," "West Side Story" (as Tony) and "The Musical of Musicals (The Musical!)" He also turned in a highly comic performance at WSU as William Barfee, the nerd with allergies and a magic foot, in "The 25th Annual Putnum County Spelling Bee."
In "A Tale of Two Cities," Carton provides some of the comic relief.
"He's a fun character," Olsen said. He describes Carton's humor as sarcastic and biting. But behind the jokes is a boozing, broken-hearted man.
"He literally lives in a tavern," Olsen said.
By the end of the show, Olsen said, Sydney has made a 180-degree turn, setting up the audience for the heart-wrenching climax of the story.
"It's the most emotional role I've ever had to do," Olsen said. "Everyone in the cast is just so emotional and we're all just so close, like a family, that we are just crying by the end of the night. It's amazing and the cast is amazing."
Mean French girls
Last summer, Olsen played Frank to Angela Jefferies' Annie in "Annie Get Your Gun" at Rodgers Memorial Theater in Centerville. The close friends are sharing the stage again in "A Tale of Two Cities," with Jefferies double-cast as the villainous Madame Defarge.
But while Carton's story leads him into the light and redemption, Madame Defarge goes down a darker path. Madame Defarge is one of Dickens' most memorable villains.
"She's been turned into the cliche mean girl," said Santoriello. "She's got some baggage and we don't discover until later on in the show and in the book why she is so angry. But she is really angry at the aristocracy, and we come to find out that she has personal justification for her anger and for her vendetta."
Jefferies, a WSU student majoring in acting/directing, has appeared in WSU's "Sleepy Hollow" and most recently in "Five Carols for Christmas." Jefferies is from Texas but moved to Utah to attend WSU after working in summer stock with Jim Christian, head of the musical theater program at WSU.
"I had to follow him (Christian) because he is brilliant," Jefferies said.
Jefferies, who is normally cast as sweeter and more motherly characters, said she was thrilled when she learned she had landed the Madame Defarge part, which includes some gunplay. "My wrist is sore from how I hold my gun. How many girls can say that?" Jefferies recently posted on her Facebook wall.
Jefferies calls the role an opportunity of a lifetime, but admits the character is forcing her to stretch.
"I'm definitely not used to this, I don't think she smiles once," said Jefferies. "She smolders and she broods, and you don't know what to expect. And then she kind of explodes in the second act, no holds barred."
But Jefferies doesn't want to play Defarge as just a two-dimensional villain. She wants the audience to understand and sympathize with her grievances, although they may not agree with her methods of settling those grievances.
"She is this passionate, incredible rock that basically helps start the French Revolution," Jefferies said. "But she's really not going about it the best way she could, and she goes after a whole family. But in her mind, it's the right thing to do."
Jefferies said she and Olsen have had some interesting conversations about their characters.
"It's so fun to play the villain to your best friend, who is the hero of the story," Jefferies said. "It's so interesting because both our characters have this opportunity to change, and one of us does and one of us doesn't ... and you can so tell which one is right.
"And that's how it is in real life, we can be better or we can be bitter. One person chooses to be better and the other chooses to be bitter."
Jefferies, who describes her singing style as a Broadway belter, said Madame Defarge has a couple of unbelievable belting pieces. Along with the rest of the score and the story, she thinks audiences will be left breathless at the close of the show.
"Seriously, it's the most beautiful story I have ever seen," Jefferies said.
FUN FACTS ABOUT MADAME DEFARGE
- Madame Defarge is a bloodthirsty tricoteuse, or female knitter, in "A Tale of Two Cities." During the French Revolution, these women often attended meetings and watched public executions as they knitted. In Defarge's knitting, she secretly encodes the name of people she wants to have killed.
Charles Dickens also uses Defarge to represent an aspect of the Fates. In Greek mythology, the Fates controlled the metaphorical thread (or yarn) of life of every mortal from birth to death.
- On the classic sitcom "Bewitched," Darrin Stephens repeatedly insults his witch of a mother-in-law, Endora, by calling her Madame Defarge. On a related note, Agnes Moorhead, the actress who played Endora, also played Madame Defarge "as if the revolution depended on it," Time magazine reported of a 1958 TV version of "A Tale of Two Cities."
- Cloris Leachman turns in a comical portrayal of Madame Defarge in Mel Brooks' "History of the World, Part 1." In true Brooks fashion, Madame Defarge has become so poor that she has run out of wool and simply rubs her knitting needles together while bitterly complaining, "We are so poor, we do not even have a language! Just dis stoopid accent!"
"She's right, she's right!" shouts one of her cohorts. "We all talk like Maurice Chevalier!"
- In an episode of "Gilmore Girls," titled "Knit, People, Knit!", Christopher Hayden finds Lorelai Gilmore knitting and quips, "Well, good morning, Madame Defarge."
Sources: endnotes.com; www.livedash.com; IMDb; Time magazine; Wikipedia