Review of Dr. Zhivago, a New Musical
Dr. Zhivago by Michael Weller (based on the novel by Boris Pasternak)
Music by Lucy Simon, lyrics by Michael Korie and Amy Powers, choreography by Kelly Devine
On Broadway at the Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway, New York, NY
Reviewed April 18, 2015 by Scott Klavan
Dr. Zhivago the musical has been kicking around for several years, overseas in Australia, and at California’s La Jolla Playhouse. It has finally come to New York in a huge, expensive production at the cavernous, state-of-the-art, Las Vegas-style Broadway Theatre. There are dozens in the cast, directed by noted veteran Des McAnuff, of Jersey Boys, the former Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival and La Jolla. Music is by Lucy Simon (The Secret Garden), lyrics by Grey Gardens’ Michael Korie, and Amy Powers, and book by Michael Weller, the acclaimed playwright of, among others, Moonchildren and Loose Ends. It joins a group of opulent Broadway musicals this season that are based on famous films and stories, including Finding Neverland, Gigi, and An American In Paris. With Zhivago, the goal would seem to be to emulate Les Miserables in its use of well-known source material to portray historical conflicts and romance in a bang-up, rousing, long-running show.
Zhivago is a machine musical about a lover and poet. Based on the revered 1957 Russian novel by Boris Pasternak, made into the popular 1965 film directed by David Lean, it has astounding technical effects, non-stop scenes and big, loud, metallic songs and orchestrations. It runs at full-speed away from the sensitivity and literary nature of its lead character. Why can’t the play be more like the man?
The production covers its story in strict detail: in the early 20th century, Russian Yurii Zhivago (Tam Mutu) is orphaned when his troubled father commits suicide. Sent to live with aristocratic relatives, the Gromekos, Yurii eventually falls for Gromeko daughter Tonia (Lora Lee Gayer) and the two marry. Zhivago studies medicine and becomes respected as a doctor as well as a poet. Nearby, beautiful, headstrong Lara Guishar (Kelli Barrett) grows up in a household where, as a teen, she is sexually abused by boorish family friend Viktor Komarovsky (Tom Hewitt). Lara falls for Pasha Antipov (Paul Alexander Nolan) a fiery, idealistic fellow who has joined the burgeoning revolutionary movement against Russia’s autocratic Tsar. At one point, Lara tries to shoot Komarovsky but fails; Zhivago takes note of this willful young woman. World War I erupts. Lara and Antipov marry, but on their wedding night, she admits her relationship with Komarovsky. Naïve and tormented, Antipov runs off to join the army and the War.
Zhivago, too, goes to the front, as a medic. There, the doctor meets Lara, a battlefield nurse. Gradually, the two grow close. But the Russian side of the War becomes entangled in the internecine struggle between the revolutionaries and the Tsar. When the War ends, the Russian Revolution takes root and the Tsar is chased, then, with his family, executed. Antipov vanishes, and is believed killed. Returning home, Zhivago, the father of a son, sees that his family manor has been taken over by representatives of the rising revolutionary Leninists, as megalomaniacal as any Tsar. Soon, Russia splits into a conflict between the Red and White armies, and Zhivago and his family flee to a country estate. There, Lara is a field worker; she and Zhivago begin a clandestine affair. But Antipov, alive, has transformed himself into a brutal Red army leader, using the name Strelnikov; he takes out his heartbreak over Lara by torturing and killing enemies. Zhivago’s identity as a poet gets him into trouble with the new Communists, hostile to religion, art and any form of personal expression. At one point, Strelnikov arrests the doctor, but relents and releases him. More tragedy occurs, and, during Stalin’s regime, Zhivago’s writings, his self-assertion, inspires the next generation of Russians, hoping to fight the constrictions of a state that will never truly succeed at keeping down the uniqueness of the human being.
The dense plot is dramatized at breakneck speed, with lavish tech. There are numerous wartime skirmishes, snowstorms, fires—live and on video. Michael Scott Wilson’s all-purpose set features dozens of scene changes with scrims, screens, pillars, long dinner tables, banners and flags, refugee trucks, and projections with dates, locations and photos of Russian ruling and serving classes. The staging is all amazingly skillful and mesmeric, if sometimes placed so far away, that, even from an orchestra seat, the result can be reminiscent more of a NYC train tunnel than Russian indoors-outdoors.
By intermission, the headlong pace gives off a sense of obligation: OK-That-Scene?-Done-Let’s-Move-On! It may seem odd for a show that runs 2 hours, 40 minutes to be rushed, but it is. Because the show doesn’t follow the musical tradition of sufficiently consolidating plot, characters are not able to let things land, to feel and react to the joy, love, and calamity in the lines, actions, or songs; it’s On to the Next. This speeding and shielding, of course, gets transferred to the audience. As an example of the dramatic surfeit, a war-battered woman’s slitting her throat in front of Zhivago is jarring, but much less so after a bunch of similar battles and atrocities.
(One could always argue that the complex book Dr. Zhivago was a poor choice for a musical. After all, there is no celebrated song and dance version of, say, War & Peace or Anna Karenina. But it’s impossible to make a blanket judgment of this kind. Les Miz was a lousy choice until it became a good one.)
It would be irresponsibly harsh to say this is a Communistic show, but it does have a processed, institutional quality. It is the facts and presentation, the outer shell that dominates here and Zhivago’s poetry, the dangerously singular inner self that threatens the Lenin/Stalinists, the unpredictable quintessence of human life, to Pasternak the most valued part, the piece that tyrants through history have struggled to dominate and regulate, that gets swallowed by the scenery, and whirl.
The performers are taut and controlled. Tam Mutu, from England, as Zhivago has a great Clark Gable mug and head of hair and sings with graceful authority. It is enjoyable to see a musical leading man capable of carrying a show making his Broadway debut. Kelli Barrett, given a load of songs and other stuff, can fall into the yelling trap, the seduction of these big-voice Vegas pageants. But she is also believably defiant and appealing, getting it done. Paul Alexander Nolan is versatile and intense in the challenging role of Antipov/Strelnikov; Tom Hewitt brings satirical malice to Komarofsky, and Lora Lee Gayer as Tonia and Jamie Jackson as Tonia’s father Alexander go against the shouting style, underplaying to great advantage.
But the actors are not permitted to connect. They are directed to keep it tight, keep moving, sometimes literally, typified by Lara’s pouring tea while revealing to Zhivago her deep feelings for him (and, he, feeling the same, drinks it!) Late in the piece, Antipov’s reading Zhivago’s poem about Lara brings on a tortured despair, but, as if anxious that this might be construed as something unsettling and touching, the actor has to strangle it, and keep going. Only in the library meeting between rivals Lara and Tonia does the piece slow enough to suggest a layered relationship.
Book, music, and lyrics tend to generalized pronouncements rather than emotional specifics. Characters don’t get those whole-hearted individuated Signature Songs that could have defined them, brought them to life; and, saved time. There are successful moments: “When The Music Played,” Lara’s bedroom admission to Antipov; “In This House,” as the Zhivago family is forced to leave by the leftists; and the women’s library duet “It Comes As No Surprise”. (The pressured format keeps lyricist Amy Powers from the level of the excellent “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” which she co-wrote for Sunset Boulevard.) The least is the lengthy, banal “Love Finds You,” which incongruously involves just about everyone, singing as they walk up and down stairs, and features Zhivago in a yodeling-style outfit and clasped bunch of flowers, a bit of unintentional comedy, something the show manages in its polish and dexterity to otherwise avoid. (A brief rendition of “Somewhere, My Love,” famous as “Lara’s Theme” from the movie, seems a mistake; its lush romanticism forces us to hear what we are missing.) The last funeral scene does contain the stirring image of mourners bringing Zhivago’s books to his gravesite—done simply, subtly, no explanation.
Poet and novelist Boris Pasternak died in 1960, after a lifelong rebellion against the repressive Soviet state. Instead of government, it is the more benign yet frustrating, demanding, cold and orderly, current big-money Broadway structure that hovers over the stage version of Dr. Zhivago. It keeps it from the freedom to express the uncontrollable passion, the irrepressible humanity that delights, kills, and saves us.
The lack is better stated by Pasternak himself, in a translation of the final stanza of his poem, “After The Storm”:
It is not revolutions and upheavals
That clear the road to new and better days,
But revelations, lavishness and torments
Of someone’s soul, inspired and ablaze.
Scott Klavan, theatre writer atEscape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, in regional theater, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including The Joy Luck Club. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater by the Blind (TBTB, now Theater Breaking Through Barriers), and his play Double Murder was published inBest American Short Plays of 2006-2007. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. In 2014, he starred in A Soldier’s Notes, an episode of the new Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch, earning him a nomination for Outstanding Actor in the LA Web Series Festival 2015. He recently directed the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, at the United Solo Festival in New York, and a series of staged readings of a new comedy, Sheila & Angelo, at the Dramatist Guild. In June and July, 2015, he will appear in the Off-Broadway production of the musical Sayonara, for Pan Asian Rep.
Photo Credits: Jason Bell and Matthew Murphy