See Madame Defarge at GSC Before It Goes to Broadway

By Tom Hauck

In the world of theatre there’s nothing more thrilling than attending a new work and, after the curtain falls and the applause dies away, you get up from your seat convinced the show you’ve just seen is destined for Broadway.

Such is the case with Madame Defarge, the new musical by Wendy Kesselman now making its world premiere at the Gloucester Stage Company. Directed by Ellie Heyman, this grand historical epic, based on the Charles Dickens classic A Tale of Two Cities, packs a solid emotional punch while presenting themes of authoritarianism and state power that resonate today.

When entering the theater, the first thing you’ll notice is the jagged, multilevel set designed by James Fluhr. It’s an angular yet fluid space, penetrated by sharp arrows of light and given a sense of gloom by the ever-present haze in the air (absolutely safe to breathe, we’re reassured). In a bold choice, the orchestra—a superbly polished trio of piano, clarinet, and cello—occupies the middle of the space, around which the actors pursue their personal objectives and occasionally physically chase each other. The back wall of the stage is a set of prison bars—the dreaded Bastille, where Dr. Manette has been imprisoned for eighteen years and whose release ignites the story.

The cast of ten is outstanding. On the French side we find the revolutionaries Therese and Ernest Defarge (Jennifer Ellis and Benjamin Evett), the cruel and pompous Monsieur Le Marquis (John Hillner), and the lately imprisoned Dr. Manette (Rob Karma Robinson). Across the Channel reside the handsome nephew of Monsieur Le Marquis, Charles Darnay (Matthew Amira); the barrister Sydney Carton (Jason Michael Evans), who happens to look like the twin of Charles Darnay (this is key to the plot); Dr. Manette’s daughter Lucie Manette (Sabrina Koss); and her guardian, Miss Pross (Wendy Waring).

Meanwhile, expertly handling a total of five roles is John Shuman (to quickly know whom he’s playing, keep an eye on his costume changes).

While everyone on the stage shines, particular note must be made of Marissa Simeqi, who in the multiple roles of Little Lucie, Young Therese, and Street Urchin takes the spotlight with confidence.

The cast will be remembered for originating their roles, and justly so. Together they work through the complex plot with its many twists and turns, and make the emotional connections with the audience that bring the sweeping scale of the story down to a human level.

While the show’s program provides a brief introduction to the characters and setting at the beginning of the play, it’s probably a good idea to familiarize yourself with the intricate plot of A Tale of Two Cities. If you know the story before you take your seat, you’ll be able to focus on the outstanding performances without the burden of keeping a scorecard of who’s doing what to whom.

It’s easy to imagine Madame Defarge being scaled up to a full Broadway production with big sets, lavish costumes, and a full orchestra and cast. The story is solid and the characters are well developed. In short, you have a choice: See Madame Defarge now at our own Gloucester Stage Company where the talented actors perform up close up and personal, or wait and pay $100 a ticket for nosebleed seats in a vast auditorium on Broadway.

Congratulations to the Gloucester Stage Company for opening its 2018 season with a stunning gem. Madame Defarge is playing now through June 2. For tickets, go to or call 978-281-4433.

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