GLOUCESTER — The law of averages dictates that at some point Jennifer Ellis will deliver a subpar performance, but I’ve yet to see one from an actress for whom excellence is almost a given.
The new musical Ellis is starring in, however, is another matter altogether.
She plays Therese Defarge, the title character in Wendy Kesselman’s ambitious but murky “Madame Defarge,’’ now receiving its world premiere at Gloucester Stage Company, directed by Ellie Heyman. You may recall Madame Defarge from your high school lit class reading of Charles Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities.’’ She’s an implacable, bloodthirsty figure who knits the names of those destined for the guillotine during the French Revolution, keeping a grim and vengeful inventory, her family having been done a terrible wrong.
If you don’t recall Madame Defarge — and lots of other details from Dickens’s novel — you may face challenges when it comes to following the convoluted, time-shifting story lines of the musical, because neither Kesselman (who wrote the show’s music, lyrics, and book) nor director Heyman offer a whole lot of help. Clarity is especially elusive in Act 1, when it’s crucial that the musical get us invested in the story and make us care about the characters. It doesn’t and we don’t. There is nothing wrong with complexity in storytelling, obviously, but only if there’s a payoff for the audience after they untangle the narrative knots. With “Madame Defarge,’’ there largely isn’t. Too few songs or performers stand out.
When surveying the jumbled pieces of “Madame Defarge,’’ which takes place in France and England before and during the French Revolution, it’s instructive to consider, by way of contrast, the stage musical adaptation of “Les Miserables,’’ set during a different period of French history. Yes, yes, I know. But for all of the saccharine excess and shameless manipulation of “Les Miz,’’ its creators did manage to wrestle Victor Hugo’s massive novel into coherent shape and make the drama at its heart compelling. We are never in doubt what is at stake for Jean Valjean et. al., and those stakes steadily acquire an emotional weight over the course of “Les Miz,’’ however stoutly our minds try to resist.
“Madame Defarge,’’ by contrast, fails to involve us. Even what should be a climactic moment leaves us both unpersuaded and unmoved. I refer to the famous final sacrifice by Sydney Carton (Jason Michael Evans), who goes to the guillotine in another’s place, but not before getting off a catchy line: “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.’’ Sydney commits that selfless act out of chivalric love for the fair Lucie Manette (Sabrina Koss), whose beloved Charles Darnay (Matthew Amira) had been scheduled to face the blade for crimes committed by his aristocratic family. The close physical resemblance between Sydney and Charles enables the former to disguise himself as the latter.
But there is little electricity between Evans’s Carton and Koss’s Lucie, and not all that much between her and Amira’s Darnay, either, draining both romance and urgency from the crisis swirling around them. As for Lucie’s father, Dr. Manette, whose release from the Bastille after nearly two decades of imprisonment sets the story in motion, Rob Karma Robinson tries but doesn’t quite manage to make him a compelling figure. (With its black vertical bars, James Fluhr’s scenic design evokes a prison-like atmosphere.)
It is Ellis, unsurprisingly, who consistently compels, delivering a performance as Madame Defarge that is a portrait of lethal resolve. She is ably complemented by a fiery Benjamin Evett as Ernest Defarge, Madame’s husband, especially during their impassioned Act 1 duet, “Longing.’’ Ellis also rises to the occasion in Act 2’s “Quieting the Frogs,’’ summoning anguish and fury in recounting episodes of monstrously inhumane behavior by aristocrats that remind you why the French Revolution happened in the first place.
Apart from the flaws in its dramaturgy, “Madame Defarge’’ also suffers from a problem that is not of either Kesselman’s or Heyman’s making, but is endemic to stage adaptations of great literature: the absence of Dickens’s soaring prose. Without that prose, what we’re left with are his notoriously one-dimensional characterizations. With Dickens, characters tend to be all good or all bad, with no shades of gray. As the stage adaptation of “Nicholas Nickleby’’ proved, it is possible to find a way around this conundrum and create compelling theater. But “Madame Defarge’’ has not done so.
Book, music, and lyrics by Wendy Kesselman. Directed by Ellie Heyman. Musical direction by Mindy Cimini. Presented by Gloucester Stage Company, Gloucester, through June 2. Tickets $35-$45, 978-281-4433, www.gloucesterstage.comDon Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin