By Tulis McCall
This seems to be the season for Book – to play – to movie – to musical sort of progression. First Gigi and now Dr. Zhivago, based on Boris Pasternak’s novel. Made into a movie in 1965. Some of us remember the movie. And some of us have read the novel. No worries about disturbing those memories. This production does not make a dent.
The story stretches over 27 years – just as the Russian Revolution was turning the country inside out. The Imperial Family was thrown out and the country dissolved into a fascist state where they Red Army and the White Army watched every move a person made. Even the countryside was not safe from predators.
As the story opens, a young Yurii Zhivgo (Jonah Halperin) mourns the death of his father, and in another part of the country a young Lara Guishar (Sophia Gennusa) suffers the loss of her father as well. Yurii is take in by the Gromeko Family whose daughter Tonia (Ava-Riley Miles) becomes his best friend and later his betrothed. The adult Tonia (Lora Lee Gayer) is an icon of beauty, purity, and devotion. And Yurii (Tam Mutu) grows up to be a fine and compassionate doctor as well as poet.
Lara does not fare so well, The adult who takes care of her and her mother is not so very nice. Viktor Komarovsky (why are Russians always called by their full names onstage… pray tell….) (Tom Hewitt) transgresses mightily over the years. While he professes to be in love with Lara, he leans heavily on acting as if he owns her.
We advance to 1914 on the night of Yurri and Tonia’s wedding. Lara (Kelli Barrett) is with her husband Pasha Antipov (Paul Alexander Nolan) participating in the student demonstrations. Zhivago treats a wounded man in the street, and he crosses paths with Lara. Apparently it is a jolt of some significance as he has to be coaxed inside to his own wedding. Lara crashes the wedding dinner and tries to shoot Komarovsky. She misses, but makes her point. Once again Zhivago is pulled to her, and concludes the true intent of Lara’s aim. He is warned off by Komarovsky, but it is too late. Zhivago be smitten.
As Pasha prepares to leave for the front, Lara confesses her relationship to Komarovsky. Pasha dashes off to find him with Lara in pursuit. She bumps into Zhivago who is out for a desperate unexplained stroll. They exchange words and pass on.
Some time later, at the front, Zhivago is running a medical unit. Lara shows up there as a medical volunteer. Cue the violins. Romance ensues-ish.
Years pass. I think. At least that’s how it felt.
1917 – people are leaving the front and returning home. Lara will go to her home in the mountains and Zhivago back to Moscow. Once he arrives he discovers his house has been commandeered and decides to take his family to – yep, the mountains where the families sill maintains a country house. As a matter of fact he arrives in the exact town where Lara is now living, protecting the land with the other women.
The two are reunited, and consummation ensues. In the mean time we discover that Pasha has slipped over to the dark side and is now referred to as Strelnikov. He is every bit as evil as the people against who he was leading a revolution. While he cannot have Lara, what with being a bit demented and no longer her type, he won’t let anyone else have her.
More years pass. I think. Ultimately one faction wins out over another. Which one? Who know. But it is a precursor to Lenin and Stalin. Zhivago is taken captive to be a doctor for Strelnikov’s allies. When things go sour, his family is allowed to escape, Lara stays behind and the two of them end up in the now deserted Kruger mansion. It is winter and the place is deserted. They know their time is limited. Komarovsky makes a surprise visit and tells Zhivago that there is chance he, Viktor Komarovsky, can save Lara, but it must be a solo reduce and Zhivago must agree to it. Zhivago does and convinces Lara that she must leave with Komarovsky and that he will follow.
Of course he never does.
What is brought home – in many ways this is courtesy of the brilliant set design by Michael Scott-Mitchell that appears to stretch into infinity – is the intensity and arbitrary nature of war. The choice of a raked stage works beautifully here, and the moving set pieces make clear that this is war. It is straight up chaos and everyone we see is a victim, even the ones calling the shots. There is no safety. There is only desperation. If nothing else, we get that.
As to the love story that is supposed to be the axis of the tale, there is little there in either the text or the chemistry between Mutu and Barrett. They are pleasant as friends will be, but the passion, the terror of a life and death situation is saved for the battle field scenes. This Zhivago and Lara are about as intense as a cup of chamomile tea. Mr. Mutu’s performance borders on being self-referential. As to the others, the voices were glorious (Paul Alexander Nolan has lost none of his his Jesus Christ Super Star bronzed vocal chord quality) and everyone acquitted themselves just fine. No balls. No hits. No errors. Without the passion, however, not much matters.
The music never got under my skin and drifted between stereotypes as far as style goes. The book itself was a let down throughout. It is difficult enough to follow 30 years of Russian history with which I am vaguely familiar, but to try and connect all the dots that are hurled willie-nillie at us was pretty much impossible. There were no peaks and valleys. No moments where the emotion was heightened, a point made and reinforced, an incident revealed to be critical. There is a lot of star power behind this musical. The creative team posses Academy, Tony, Grammy and Emmy awards. None of which were in evidence.
This Zhivago is one long slog-through.
Doctor Zhivago – Book by Michael Weller; lyrics by Michael Korie and Amy Powers; music by Lucy Simon; based on the novel by Boris Pasternak; directed by Des McAnuff
WITH: Tam Mutu (Yurii Zhivago), Kelli Barrett (Lara Guishar), Tom Hewitt (Viktor Komarovsky), Paul Alexander Nolan (Pasha Antipov/Strelnikov), Lora Lee Gayer (Tonia Gromeko), Jamie Jackson (Alexander Gromeko), Jacqueline Antaramian (Anna Gromeko), Jonah Halperin (Young Yurii/Sasha), Sophia Gennusa (Young Lara/Katarina) and Ava-Riley Miles (Young Tonia).
Choreography by Kelly Devine; orchestrations by Danny Troob; music director/supervisor, Ron Melrose; sets by Michael Scott-Mitchell; costumes by Paul Tazewell; lighting by Howell Binkley; sound by SCK Sound Design; projections and video by Sean Nieuwenhuis; hair and wig design by Charles G. LaPointe; special effects design by Greg Meeh; fight director, Steve Rankin; makeup design by Joe Dulude II, aerial effects design by Paul Rubin; music arrangements by Eric Stern; conductor, Rick Fox; music contractor, John Miller; general manager, Alchemy Production Group/Carl Pasbjerg and Abbie M. Strassler; production stage manager, James Harker; management consultant, Aruba Productions/Ken Denison; production manager, Juniper Street Productions. Presented by Anita Waxman, Tom Dokton, Latitude Link, Ted Hartley/RKO Stage and Chunsoo Shin, with Margo and Roger Coleman, Corcoran Productions, J. Todd Harris, the Pelican Group, Chase Mishkin, Wasserman Shaw, Ahmos Hassan, Conrad Prebys and Debbie Turner, Adam Silberman, the Goldiner Group/Caroline Lieberman, Parrothead Productions, Bruce D. Long, and La Jolla Playhouse, in association with Stage Entertainment, Broadway Across America, Grove Entertainment, the Shubert Organization, Tom McInerney, Joan and Irwin Jacobs, Susan Polis Schutz, Tilted Windmills, the Stanford Group, Jim and Judy Harpel, John and Bonnie Hegeman, Itai Shoffman and Sar Inbar, Dark Style Agency, Kelvingrove Ventures, Stephanie Torreno/Eugenie and Keith Goggin, Rao Makineni/Jessica Green, David T. Loudermilk/Cheryl Lachowicz, Robert and Debra Gottlieb/Sharon Azrieli, Halloran Entertainment/Lyubov’ Productions, Lois Weiner and Dr. Robert Weiner/Carl Pate, the Revolution Group/Samajaca Productions, Denise Rich and John Frost; executive producer, Junkyard Dog Productions. At the Broadway Theater, 1681 Broadway, between 52nd and 53rd Streets, 212-239-6200, doctorzhivagobroadway.com. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.