Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 21, 2015
Doctor Zhivago Book by Michael Weller. Lyrics by Michael Korie & Amy Powers. Music by Lucy Simon. Based on the novel by Boris Pasternak. Produced with permission of Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures, Inc. and Turner Entertainment Co. Directed by Des McAnuff. Choreography by Kelly Devine. Orchestrations by Danny Troob. Music Director/Supervisor Ron Melrose. Scenic design by Michael Scott-Mitchell. Costume design by Paul Tazewell. Lighting design by Howell Binkley. Sound design by SCK Sound Design. Projection & video design by Sean Nieuwenhuis. Hair & wig design by Charles G. LaPointe. Special effects design by Greg Meeh. Fight Director Steve Rankin. Make-up design by Joe Dulude II. Aerial effects design by Paul Rubin. Cast: Tam Mutu, Kelli Barrett, Tom Huewitt, Paul Alexander Nolan, Lora Lee Gayer, Jamie Jackson, Jacqueline Antaramian, Jonah Halperin, Sophia Gennusa, Ava-Riley Miles, Wendi Bergamini, Heather Botts, Ashley Brooke, Melody Butiu, Josh Canfield, Briana Carlson-Goodman, Julian Cihi, Bradley Dean, Michael Brian Dunn, Drew Foster, Kira Guloien, Robert Hager, Ericka Hunter, Denis Lambert, David McDonald, Joseph Medeiros, Pilar Millhollen, Gary Milner, Spencer Moses, Julius Sermonia, Jacob Smith, Jesse Wildman.
Sorry, sorry. But keeping your spirits high through this evening by Michael Weller (book), Lucy Simon (music), and Michael Korie and Amy Powers (lyrics), and has been directed with an unwarranted sense of occasion by Des McAnuff, is not easy, and you may have to resort to such tactics to ensure your attention stays rapt. How can this be, given that Pasternak's novel (and the equally famous, five-time-Oscar-winning 1965 film based on it) contains no shortage of romantic or political excitement? The medium, as they say, is the message.
The writers have chosen as their model the British pop opera of the 1980s and early 1990s. Given the sprawling book covers several decades and touches on big themes of love, betrayal, and devotion to country, this is at least somewhat understandable: Sweeping feelings and monumental change cry out for an enormous treatment, and, if nothing else, those shows certainly had enormity down. And if not every word of this musical is sung, enough of them are for the basic qualifications to be met.
But each of these shows is distinctive in style and tone in a way this one never is. As Yurii Zhivago is orphaned, taken in by a rich family, and grows up (the adult version is played by Tam Mutu), at which point he's torn between Tonia (Lora Lee Gayer), the wife to whom he feels obligated, and Lara (Kelli Barrett), the mysterious but beautiful girl he keeps meeting and slowly falls in love with, teeming battles between the Tsarist and resistance forces and his own intense yearnings unfold with exactly the same kind of monochromatic yawn.
Yes, Weller covers vast tracts of plot in mere seconds of stage timethat's to be expected, and it's certainly par for the course for this genre. But characters who play significant roles in the saga, most notably Viktor Komarovsky (Tom Hewitt), the self-styled protector of Lara, and Pasha Antipov (Paul Alexander Nolan), the opposition leader she takes up with early on, are introduced, brushed past, and re-emerge scenes later as though their weight and importance is just to be accepted as fact. And when these, or others, face major changes, up to and (frequently) including death, you're expected to care without question.
This is traditionally where the songs would step in to pick up the slack, but even they can barely be bothered. Simon's music is efficient but muddy, and not at all memorablelots of military marches that tread in a circle, melodies in ballads that don't soar, and threatening themes without fire. (The 18-piece band sounds good, though Danny Troob's orchestrations are unremarakble.) The workmanlike lyrics trade on simplistic plays on simple thoughts ("You are always there / Beyond the dark / Lighting my existence," "By daylight I can plainly see / The savagery of war / But all that numbs and deadens me / The moon has seen before," that sort of thing), roundly failing to fill your chest with fire or your spine with a chill. When the Act I finale ("In This House") is one of the evening's most plodding lowlights, something is wrong.
Because there's so much vapid gunplay, figurative rending of garments, and hollow desperation to spread around, the cumulative effect of the writing is not of a society on the brink of self-immolation, but of a camera panning across a battlefield to imply tragedy without consequence. The novel and the film (for which Robert Bolt wrote the screenplay) better conveyed a constantly roiling sense of velocity that kept the necessary people and situations at the forefront of your mind, even when they weren't at the forefront of the action. Similarly successful is Les Miz, which juggles plenty of weighty themes but doesn't lose sight of the necessary humanity beneath it all.
Humanity is exactly what's too often missing. McAnuff unlocked more than enough of it in his Broadway productions of Jersey Boys and Jesus Christ Superstar, so he has it in him, but there's an overwhelmed, exhausted atmosphere here that gives preference to stage pictures and the movement of the individual elements than on the people who are driving the story. His intimate scenes are adequately judged, but get lost easily whenever he broadens his focus.
Michael Scott-Mitchell's set, which depends on a giant projection screen (those designs are by Sean Nieuwenhuis), flowing curtains, a steeply raked stage, flaming openings in the floor, and a series of wheeled towers and platforms to suggest a sumptuous palace in the first act and a burned-out bunker in the second, dwarfs every performer while only occasionally defining a recognizable time and place in which each scene can unfold. Paul Tazewell's costumes look simultaneously rich and drab, and Howell Binkley's lights flood every moment in shadow and gloom to ensure you don't mistake this for a happy tale.
The leads are accomplished singers, but rarely appear convincingly torn apart by the ravages they endure. Mutu's pop tenor voice is particularly fine, but detecting the difference in his Yurii when he's smitten, terrified, devastated, or angry is not easy; the actor endures each new situation with a leading man's stolidity that never resolves into a character so much as a posture. Barrett sings piercingly but also tensely, and does not make Lara a bastion of magnetism who can believably captivate three different men. Finding the best balance and turning out the most satisfying overall portrayal is Gayer, though she can't power through all of Tonia's shrewishness.
Stronger still is Hewitt, who layers enough emotional uncertainty onto Viktor to keep you guessing. And the best of the bunch is Nolan, whose ever-shifting Pasha gives him room to experience and express the most complex and compelling changes in circumstance and personality; yet the transformation always seems natural, not forced, as if he truly is living in, and adapting as a result of, the most trying times imaginable. His, you imagine, is exactly what a life bereft of true joy looks like.
A musical bereft of joy (and thrills) would look a lot like Doctor Zhivago, with one crucial exception. When Yurii and Lara meet in a front-line hospital and first begin caring for each other, it's while a coterie of habit-wearing nurses sing "Somewhere, My Love" in the background. Derived from Maurice Jarre's "Lara's Theme," the film's breakaway musical hit, it explodes with a cautious passion and sensual triumph that are completely foreign to the restrained lifelessness with which Simon and her collaborators paint.
It's a genuine jolt to the heart, but less than what's needed to free your mind of the many better, more original shows this Doctor Zhivago echoes, or thoughts of how warm, in comparison, Siberia must be this time of the year.