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Currently playing on Broadway is a spectacular production of a lavish musical based on a classic novel, featuring doomed lovers and set during the tumultuous events of a historical revolution. Regrettably for the producers of the new Doctor Zhivago, that musical is Les Miserables. The specter of that earlier show hangs uneasily over this adaptation of Boris Pasternak‘s 1957 novel, set in Russia during the early decades of the 20th century. So, unfortunately, does the memory of David Lean‘s classic film version, starring Omar Sharif in the title role and a luminous Julie Christie as his beloved Lara.
Speaking of Lara, it’s also hard to walk into the theater without the strains of the film’s gorgeous theme song, “Somewhere My Love,” otherwise known as “Lara’s Theme,” playing in your head. And sure enough, as if not wanting to dash the audience’s expectations, the number is performed midway through the first act. Not as a soaring love ballad, mind you, but rather as an ersatz folk song delivered by a group of female nurses. The notes are all there, but the emotion is sorely lacking.
The same could be said of the entirety of this big-budget musical directed by Des McAnuff (The Who’s Tommy, Jersey Boys), featuring music by Lucy Simon (The Secret Garden), lyrics by Michael Korie (Grey Gardens) and Amy Powers and a book by Michael Weller. The show dutifully features all the major characters and dramatic moments familiar from the book and film, but in a breathlessly paced, mechanical style that never manages to engage the heart or mind.
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And considering the richness of the source material, that’s really saying something. This saga encompassing both World War I and the Russian Revolution features a powerful, star-crossed love story and enough gripping melodrama to fuel a miniseries. But from its bookending scenes depicting the title character’s funeral to its baffling repeated visual motif of a sculptural assemblage of chairs, the production feels misconceived, lacking dramatic urgency despite the frequent deafening sounds of gunfire and explosions.
While it’s admittedly not fair to compare the stage performers to their cinematic predecessors, it’s essentially unavoidable.
As the poet/physician Zhivago, British actor Tam Mutu, who starred in the ill-fated Phantom of the Opera sequel, Love Never Dies, strikes a handsome presence and sings strongly. But his character, who should anchor the proceedings, never comes across forcefully, remaining a bland cipher throughout. Equally unmemorable is Kelli Barrett, who despite her blonde prettiness fails to convey the desperate urgency that would make us care about Lara’s fate. Playing Viktor Komarovsky, the well-connected older man who preys on Lara, the normally reliable Tom Hewitt similarly fails to galvanize, lacking the riveting intensity of the film’s Rod Steiger. Only Paul Alexander Nolan — as the young, fervent revolutionary Pasha, Lara’s husband, who becomes transformed into the ruthless Strelnikov after the revolution — truly impresses, delivering a nuanced turn while displaying truly powerful pipes on such numbers as “No Mercy at All.”
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Weller’s efficient book manages to compress the complicated plot sufficiently to result in a brisk running time of two hours and 40 minutes. But for those not familiar with the source material, the jumbled scenes will likely prove confusing. Even worse, the central love story is given short shrift, with the result that we don’t wind up caring whether the already married Zhivago and Lara will eventually wind up together.
Simon’s music is suitably lush, but the barrage of power ballads all tend to bleed together, lacking the soaring melodicism of — again, forgive the comparison — Les Miz. While some numbers, such as the love song “Now” and the bittersweet “It Comes as No Surprise” — the latter a duet between Lara and Tonia (Lora Lee Gayer), Zhivago’s long-suffering wife — make solid impressions, most of the score is forgettable.
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McAnuff has staged the complex proceedings with his usual solid professionalism, but it mainly comes across as an exercise in managing the voluminous onstage traffic. And while Paul Tazewell‘s costumes do full justice to the historical period, Michael Scott Mitchell‘s set, dominated by a series of giant arches, is more functional than awe-inspiring. Particularly ineffective is the evocation of the crumbling mansion in which Zhivago and Lara take refuge, with the icicles hanging from the shattered ceiling resembling cheap plastic. The projections employed prominently throughout are more distracting than evocative, especially when Zhivago sings an emotive number and we see a video of Lara staring forlornly in the background. What, did Barrett need a bathroom break?
Yes, you’ll walk out of Doctor Zhivago humming a song. Unfortunately, it will be the one you were already humming on the way in.
Cast: Tam Mutu, Kelli Barrett, Tom Hewitt, Paul Alexander Nolan, Lora Lee Gayer, Jamie Jackson, Jacqueline Antaramian, Jonah Halperin, Sophia Gennusa, Ava-Riley Miles
Director: Des McAnuff
Book: Michael Weller, based on the novel by Boris Pasternak
Lyrics: Michael Korie, Amy Powers
Music: Lucy Simon
Set designer: Michael Scott-Mitchell
Costume designer: Paul Tazewell
Lighting designer: Howell Binkley
Sound designer: SCK Sound Design
Projection and video designer: Sean Nieuwenhuis
Choreographer: Kelly Devine
Presented by Anita Waxman, Tom Dokton, Lattitude Link, Ted Hartley/RKO Stage, Chunsoo Shin, Roger Coleman, Corcoran Productions, J. Todd Harris, The Pelican Group, Chase Mishkin Ahmos Hassan, Conrad Prebys and Debbie Turner, Adam Silberman, The Goldiner Group, Caroline Lieberman, Bruce D. Long and La Jolla Playhouse, in association with Stage Entertainment, Broadway Across America, Grove Entertainment, The Shubert Organization, Tom McInerney, Parrothead Productions, Joan and Irwin Jacobs, Susan Polis Schultz, Tilted Windmills, The Stanford Group, Jim and Judy Harpel, John Hegeman, Itai Shoffman and Sar Inbar, Dark Style Agency, Kelvingrove Ventures LLC, Stephanie Torreno, Eugenie and Keith Goggin, Rao Makineni, Jessica Green, David T. Loudermilk, Cheryl Lachowicz, Debra and Robert Gottlieb, Sharon Azrieli, Halloran Entertainment, Lyubov’ Productions, Elizabeth English, Samajaca Productions, John Frost and Junkyard Dog Productions
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