Childsplay's A Tale of Two Cities a treat for theater fans, though not necessarily for children

If I have a quibble with Childsplay's A Tale of Two Cities, it's that it's too smart for children. Kids tend not to notice the kind of subtle beauty that Dwayne Hartford has brought to his adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic; they aren't built to appreciate the skill it takes to streamline a complex set of stories into slick entertainment that's still stuffed with Dickensian flair. But if Arizona's professional children's theater has failed to dumb down Dickens, that's merely one more reason to admire this stunning world première, which I was fortunate enough to see on opening night. From the moment Jon Gentry appeared at the top of the show dressed as Phil Spector in fur vest and Prince Valiant wig, it was clear that this was going to be a rare night of theater.

Purists looking for each of the plots and subplots contained in Dickens' novel will be disappointed, as Hartford has stripped away all but the central tale of the French aristocrat and British barrister in love with the same woman. He's transformed many of the most recognizable passages into jaunty banter and an occasional narrative spoken to the audience, and turned the book's central love story into a backdrop for a clever lesson on the French Revolution.

Director David Saar punches up scenes both thrilling (a fatal carriage crash) and more mundane (a pair of courtroom sequences), and David Barker's comic fight sequence provides some necessary levity late in Act Two, all on a gorgeous, two-tiered set that accommodates locales as diverse as a French alleyway and an English drawing room.

The cast is superb. Gentry is, as ever, magnificent in several different roles, most notably the vainglorious Marquis, whose arch delivery, shiny pate, and colossal dressing gown reminded me of both Nosferatu and Bette Davis' portrayal of Queen Elizabeth. D. Scott Withers brings grace and dignity to Sydney Carton, a character I remember as weak-willed and shrill in the novel. And Debra K. Stevens, whose marvelously dour Madame Defarge seethes with palpable rage, makes even the smallest bits of dialogue sing with emotion. She fretted and fumed and snarled with sarcasm, and I was unable to take my eyes off her.

If other performers are overshadowed by this trio of Childsplay regulars, they are, at least, as strikingly attired in Connie Furr-Soloman's stunning creations. The designer has blended the belted tunics and brocaded vests of the French aristocracy with punk-inspired leatherette leggings and merry widows; this dazzling Rococo-meets-Mad-Max couture lends a more contemporary feel to Dickens' historical tale.

Teenagers will probably admire these dazzling costumes, and though I worry that younger children won't respond to this dark, dense retelling of a classic, I'm certain that any fan of great theater and fine storytelling will.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela