Saturday, April 11, 2009

A Review of Tales of Two Cities

SPT Theatre - SPT's production of Tales of Two Cities is a very entertaining evening of all around duality.

It's an interesting premise: Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, two cities separated by some 20 miles of heartland and connected by back roads, highways, rivers, and train tracks, are vastly different creatures. I don't know if that rings true to an outsider or to a newcomer. But it rings true - it is true - for those of us born in the area and those of you who've lived here more than a couple of years. And while you could say the same thing about any two close but separated cities, it seems particularly pronounced to me with Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.

The temptation when reviewing a production that consists of a series of mostly-unrelated vignettes is to want to review each piece separately. That's in large part because of a vast-difference in the quality of the individual pieces. That's not the case here.

The writing was mostly sharp and on the rare occasions it wasn't the performances lifted the material. All of the actors brought a wonderful energy to the works, not just when they were the focus of the action, but also when they were just in the background. I can almost see one wanting to see two performances, one to watch the actors in the focus of a scene and one to watch what the performers in the background were doing.

A couple of quibbles, however. The first act is much more cohesive than the second act. The second act mostly abandons the notion of Cedar Rapids and Iowa City as distinct but related entities in favor of comedy that becomes broader and broader, though no less entertaining, as the night goes on.

Further, the comedy itself got to be a little too much. The 'Corridors of Justice' superhero sketch, which was spread over four separate pieces, eventually became just four iterations of the same joke that had been stretched pretty thin by the time we had seen the second iteration. It was obvious by the time Dubuque and West Liberty had been miraculously annexed into the Corridor that the writers were looking more for a structure on which to hang jokes than a vehicle to actually say something. The pieces were still performed extremely well, but as the evening progressed, I found myself wanting something with a little bit more meat on its bones.

I got it with the last written piece of the production, Jason Alberty's "Cities in the Superlative', a first person monologue about what the area means to him. The work had an emotional heft and strength that the other pieces lacked, and I found myself wishing we would have been given four monologues spaced throughout the production instead of four versions of the same superhero sketch.

So much for the written pieces. What about the music? Well, I think SPT should have either skipped the musical numbers, greatly reduced the number of musical numbers, or given more thought to which musical numbers to include.

This is not to say the musical numbers were bad. With a couple of exceptions, the songs were very well done, both vocally and instrumentally, with strong singing and a great band. This may have been the first time I actually liked Istanbul (Not Constantinople). Rather, it's to say that the songs did not add anything to the theme of the evening. I gave up trying to figure out how the songs related either to the piece they followed or the piece they proceeded.

The songs in the first act were at least centered on songs where the idea of cities or at least the word city played a prominent role, presumably because of a lack of songs featuring the words 'cedar' or 'rapids'. The songs in the second act didn't even have that saving grace, which added to the feeling that the second act wasn't as cohesive. Because the songs aren't adding to or elaborating on the theme, they begin to end up detracting from it.

This is nowhere as evident as in the closing song, 'Long Way Home'. The vocalists didn't mesh and there were some ill-advised stretches for high notes. This alone might not have been so bad if the song hadn't just followed the best written piece of the night. Ultimately, the song lessened the emotional impact of the written piece.

But I don't want to give anyone the wrong idea here; though I would have liked to see SPT explore the theme a little more fully and a little more seriously, I thoroughly enjoyed this production. When I'm reviewing, I hardly ever find myself so caught up in a work that I quit thinking about what I'm seeing and start reacting to the performances in front of me. Yet I found myself in that position, as audience member and not as critic, repeatedly during the performance. I would strongly urge anyone to go see Tales of Two Cities; I may even catch it a second time when it comes to Iowa City on April 24th.

--David Pierce

David Pierce is a four-time past president of the Iowa City Community Theatre. He has acted, sung, directed, and worked backstage for far too many local productions to mention. He is a writer both by trade and inclination, with law and journalism as an educational background.

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