New York City Theater
Give “Doctor Zhivago” an “A” for “Ambition.” But, sometimes, ambition just isn’t enough and all the smoke and noise, all the scenery and costumes expended on this bloated tale of romance and war are for naught. A ponderous attempt to do for the Russians what “Les Misérables” did for the French, the new musical is a misfire in just about every way.
The story is familiar from the Boris Patsernak novel as well as from the 1965 Oscar-winning film that starred Omar Sharif and Julie Christie. That epic, three hours in length, was a major hit, sparking not only an interest in Russian fashion (all those furs) but a hit tune, “Somewhere My Love” (“Lara’s Theme”), which is shoehorned into the Broadway musical. When it comes, it has zilch to do with the hot romance between Yurii Zhivago and Lara Guishar. It’s staged, instead, as a passing-the-time tune that nurses sing while ironing and dancing with empty white shirts.
Zhivago is a poet as well as a physician while Lara, later his mistress, is also a nurse. Both are married to others, he to the loyal Tonia, she to the hot-headed Pasha. The love between Zhivago and Lara plays out against the first decades of the last century, spanning years of war and revolution which don’t deter them from carrying on. “The only revolution is the one inside your heart,” says Viktor Komarovsky, played by the excellent Tom Hewitt, going easy on the villainy. He’s also the narrator, clarifying the complicated goings-on.
Michael Weller’s libretto, along with Lucy Simon’s attractive music and lyrics bv Michael Korie and Amy Powers’s bland lyrics (“Be strong and pure / For all you must endure”), juxtapose the personal with the political, satisfying neither camp.
The quieter moments work best: letters from soldiers to their girlfriends, lines like “So many abandoned chairs where writers once sat,” a quintet titled “Love Finds You,” projected quotations from Zhivago’s poetry that come near the end. The film gave short shrift to Zhivago’s writings, also, but handled the story’s epic aspects better. The stage is more literary, as demonstrated by the feeble attempt to suggest a train in motion, here a sliding slab of steel turned by actors.
Under the circumstances, not only does Hewitt command attention but so does Tam Mutu as the brooding, sensitive Zhivago. The lively Kelli Barrett sings well but is a shallow Lara, while Paul Alexander Nolan as the fiery Pasha is the opposite, pulling out all the stops and then some.
Des McAnuff’s direction must have been a Herculean task: all those elements of story and technicalities! Michael Scott-Mitchell’s sets, Howell Binkley’s lighting and SCK Sound Design’s sound design threaten to overwhelm. Building Paul Tazewell’s rich period costumes probably kept several ateliers busy.
Not until the end do we get snow. When it comes, it trickles very prettily down without really suggesting brutal Russian winters. Like the show, it’s unexciting and unemotional, slow-moving and remote.
--David A. Rosenberg
May 5, 2015