‘Madame Defarge’: Strong debut, but work to do

L to R: Therese Defarge: Jennifer Ellis; Doctor Manette: Rob Karma Robinson; Ernest Defarge: Benjamin Evett; Mr. Lorry: John Shuman. Photo: Kippy Goldfarb, Carolle Photography

GLOUCESTER – A pensive Madame Thérèse Defarge is stewing in her wine shop in the Saint-Antoine section of Paris, patiently knitting, and someday she’ll run out of patience, put down her knitting and someone will pay the price for the terrible secret she holds, and her thirst for revenge..

The Gloucester Stage Company is unveiling the world premiere of the new Wendy Kesselman musical “Madame Defarge” through June 2 and although there are flaws, there is also much to like and probable life after this production..

The musical, with book, music and lyrics by Kesselman, is loosely adapted from the sprawling Charles Dickens novel “A Tale of Two Cities.”

The mood, production values, and the way the score is performed had me thinking much of the time “chamber musical,” but  the use of several playing areas in James Fleur’s scenic design opens up the piece, allowing director Ellie Heyman to change time and place quickly.

GSC has labeled this 39th season one of ‘Revolutions, Rebels and Renegades!’ and the events of “Madame Defarge” are set in the years before, then during the French Revolution and its aftermath.

Monsieur Le Marquis: John Hillner. Kippy Goldfarb/Carolle Photography

It is a bit conflicted when it comes to being compared to the mega-hit musical; “Les Miserables,” based on the Victor Huge classic.

It probably wouldn’t have used that distinctive font on the show’s posters if kit was trying to avoid comparison, but “Madame Defarge” is more of an intimate epic ,in indeed there is such a thing.

There are no revolving stages, barricades and pitched battles – if you throw out the storming of the Bastille – or slogs through the sewers of Paris, but events do occur on a large scale to a large number of characters.

And while “Les Miz” stays put in France, Madame Defarge moves between London and Paris, with the characters’ travel between the two countries integrated purposefully into the plot.

Both Madame Thérèse Defarge (the redoubtable Jennifer Ellis, who has thrived in other past Gloucester appearances) and husband Ernst Defarge (Benjamin Evett) are caring for Dr. Manette (Rob Karma Robinson), whom they once served, after he leaves the dreaded Bastille after 18 torturous years, a time in which he was presumed dead

The years have damaged him as exemplified in his song “Shoes,” “One Hundred and Five North Tower,” his mournful ode to his pitiable existence as a shoemaker in the prison.

His daughter Lucie (Sabrina Koss) and her governess Miss Pross (Wendy Waring) have taken refuge in England, unaware the doctor lives, attended to by loyal family friend and banker Mr. Lorry (John Shuman).

Dr. Manette’s release and subsequent slow recovery, aided by the Defarges and then Lucie, sets off a chain of events that will spiral out of control.

The Defarges harbor bitter memories of how Thérèse and her family were treated by the Evrémonde’s and of an incident years earlier,when she and Ernst witnessed the Marquis St. Evrémonde’s carriage running over a young boy, killing him, one of several events brought to vivid life by Zachary Cadman’s evocative and timely sound design.

Charles Darnay (Mathrew Amira) is a nobleman,  also part of the Evremonde Estate’ Darnay has disowned his heritage, much to the disgust of his uncle, Monsieur Le Marquis, deliciously played by John Hillner, who cashes in his song “Lettre de Cachet”in which he expresses his wish to have his nephew imprisoned.

He is doubly devilish as all-purpose spy/low-rent operative named Barsad, .who will figure prominently in the proceedings.

L to R: Foreground: Lucie Manette: Sabrina Koss; Background: Charles Darnay: Matthew Amira. Photo: Kippy Goldfarb/Carolle Photography

One area where director Heyman has aced the test is in the casting. It’s hard to take your eyes off Ellis as Defarge, her grief and thirst for revenge eventually overtaking her and almost driving her mad.

Evett as Ernst has always been a better actor than singer, and that doesn’t mean he isn’t comfortable singing or starring in musicals, which he has done with fine results.

It’s just that often he is singing with Ellis, and it is almost impossible for him to match that vocal instrument.. His Ernst Defarge is compassionate, caring, rock-solid and inconsolable when all goes wrong.

The poise of newly-minted IRNE Award winner Marissa Simeqi is quite remarkable as Young Thérèse and in several other important roles. She joins Ellis in the “Knitting” number that will be reprised several times.

Jason Michael Evans was one of the highlights of last season’s production “From Here to Eternity” at Ogunquit Playhouse and here he shines as Sydney Carton, the live-for-today lawyer who becomes incidental fall-out in the love affair between Lucie Minette and Darnay,

When Darnay, after marrying and beginning a family with Lucie, returns to France after the revolution to free one of his former servants, Gabelle (Shuman), he is immediately arrested .and outed as an aristocrat.

All involved return to France to try and save Darnay, but he is sentenced to death by the guillotine, which allows Carton to perform a “far, far better thing” than he had ever done before.

Gloucester Stage has fashioned a road map of sorts in the program to allow you to keep the various characters straight, if your Dickens recall is rusty.

The production values of “Defarge” are simply sublime. Again, special mention to Fleur’s set which opens up the piece to such events as the storming of the Bastille. Mary Ellen Stebbins’ lighting design works with the other elements to set the mood of the piece, and Chelsea Kerl’s costumes capture the period in question without being suffocating.

The three-person orchestra led by Mindy Cimini or Asher Denburg on piano along with Stephen Bates on clarinet and Anna Sedo on cello, with arrangements by Christopher Berg, add to the feel of a chamber musical.

Madame Defarge “checks in at just over two hours, which explains why the book has to skip over huge swatches of the Charles Dickens novel to get where it’s going.

Madame DeFarge” isn’t a perfect piece. What first production of a musical is? Perhaps a tweaking of the score – there are two or three numbers that are a big repetitive or unnecessary that we might not miss, and I’ll bet Ms. Kesselman has some possible replacement in the bag – and perhaps even a bit more exposition in the right spots, and “Madame Defarge” has a future past Cape Ann.

The Gloucester Stage Company world premiere production of the musical “Madame Defarge.” Book, music and lyrics by Wendy Kesselman, inspired by Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.” Directed by Ellie Hayman, Musical direction by Mindy Cimini. Scenic design by James Fleur . Lighting design by Mary Ellen Stebbins. Costume design by Chelsea Kerl. At the Gloucester Stage Company through June 2. gloucesterstage.com