It’s bad luck for this earnest musical, having recrafted itself through productions at The La Jolla Playhouse as well as in Australia and Korea, to open in a season jam packed with flashier competition. Though the piece is extravagant in its realization and skillfully condenses narrative from what’s generally 600 pages, it boasts neither newsworthy names nor out of the box novelty.
Novelist, poet, translator Boris Pasternack’s 1957 novel, Doctor Zhivago, is the story of idealistic doctor/poet, Yuri Zhivago and his survival during Russia’s pitiless, political turmoil 1903-to the Second World War. Almost throughout, Yuri is agonizingly torn between wife, Tona Gromeko (Lora Lee Gayer), and the love of his life, Lara Guishar (Kelli Barrett). Lara, who acts as raison d’etre of the sweeping epic, is also the lifelong love of influential official Viktor Komarovsky (Tom Hewitt), who seduced her as a girl, and young revolutionary Pasha Antipov (Paul Alexander Nolan), who goes to war in order to turn men against the Czar. All three remain devoted, appearing in Lara’s life between chasms of shifting national allegiance. The iconic 1965 film was nominated for ten Academy Awards and won five.
Lara and Yuri first meet the day of his wedding when she crashes his reception to kill Viktor for forcing himself on her since childhood. Interestingly, unlike the film, she later admits complicity. Lara misfires. Viktor won’t press charges. For Yuri, it’s a coup de foudre – love at first sight. Here’s passion where his own life is merely warm and comfortable. Conscripted into the army, Yuri leaves his patrician home and family sure the war won’t last past Christmas. Lara’s new husband, a political firebrand, enlists.She won’t learn he’s alive until years later when, leading a merciless outlaw division of The Red Army, he secretly sees that she comes to no harm.
Terrifically staged wartime scenes show increasingly mutinous men. Yuri and Lara meet again on the front where she’s a volunteer nurse. They bond deeply. He returns to Moscow to find his home a shell occupied by minions of the transient government. The family has been allowed to live,i.e. to starve upstairs. They resolve to travel to what’s left of a country estate in The Ural Mountains, ostensibly away from major fighting. Lara has settled there as well. She works in the fields beside other abandoned women (superbly manifest) and minds the town library. Unable to resist, Yuri goes to see her. They finally consummate the affair.
Briefly: Yuri is kidnapped by another army division; Tonia, having been told about Lara, looks for him at the library (an insightful scene/song featuring the two empathetic women); his family flees to another town; and Lara refuses Viktor’s offer to get her out and waits for Yuri who finally escapes and turns up. The poet sacrifices himself and only Lara is helped to leave the country. (Weller’s book eschews the hero’s time exiled at a camp in Siberia). Zhivago’s poetry lives on.
During performance, one is informed, entertained, and often captivated. It’s unnecessary to know details of Russian history, but can’t hurt. As a full, well prepared meal it’s satisfying on all fronts, but like Chinese food, you may be hungry a few hours later.
British import, Tam Mutu (Yuri Zhivago), is a welcome addition to a currently thin roster of leading men in musical theater. He’s handsome, has a warm, compelling voice and communicates feelings with unfussy directness paramount to the genre. With any luck, this will be the first of many appearances here.
Kelli Barrett (Lara) has a confident, vibrato filled contralto that reminds one of a younger Marin Mazzie. Every emotion is emphasized. I attribute this to directorial decision rather than overacting. The volatile character wears her heart on her sleeve.
Barrett’s performance is fittingly opposite to that of Lora Lee Gaynor as Tonia. This actress embodies steely reserve, showing little on her face, yet vocally expressive.
Paul Alexander Nolan (Pasha) has a powerful tenor and dances well. His firecracker spirit, at first authentic, unfortunately swells to overkill. Tom Hewitt’s Viktor Komarovsky lacks distinctive personality.
Director Des McAnuff aesthetically puppets his large cast and tames a complicated story with fluency , more of an accomplishment than usual in this case. His characters, however, feel generic.
Book Writer (playwright) Michael Weller’s Herculean effort has produced a cogent, if dense, tale aided by location and dates projected on the top of the proscenium. Pithy dialogue epitomizes characters and conveys situations. Though the story’s breadth diminishes impact of any single emotional exchange, we’re helped to understand the strength of love sustained through decades when life and death are cheap.
Music and Lyrics are unmemorable . They seem right at the time, lushly orchestrated (Danny Troob), carrying plot, describing feelings, but don’t leave a distinctive echo.
Michael Scott-Mitchell (Scenic Design), Sean Nieuwenhuis (Projection/Video Design), and Howell Binkley (Lighting Design) have created inspiring visuals. From the opulent, pillared Zhivago home to the fiery, smoke-filled front to a (gently waving) wheat field, this collaboration offers evocative, cinematic sweep. The at first elusive theme of empty chairs is subtle and brave. My single caveat would be the employment of projected images of people, including a blowup of Lara, which are pointedly out of place.
Paul Tazewell’s Costumes are meticulously researched; painterly and redolent. Sick Sound Design delivers distant political demonstrations and hi fidelity war so varied/specific and immediate you’ll find yourself shaken.
Choreographer Kelly Devine gives us a lovely waltz, the requisite Russian Cossack dance, a charming celebration by nurses about to go home wherein hospital gowns are become their partners, and tremendously imaginative movement in the fields as women farm.
Photos by Matthew Murphy
Opening: Tam Mutu & Kelli Barrett
1. Tam Mutu
2. Tam Mutu, Kelli Barrett, and The Company
3. Paul Alexander Nolan, Kelli Barrett, Tam Mutu, Lora Lee Gayer
4. Sophia Gennusa, Kelli Barrett
From the novel by Boris Pasternak
Lyrics-Michael Korie & Amy Powers; Music-Lucy Simon
Directed by Des McAnuff
1681 Broadway at 53rd Street