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Doctor Zhivago

A wildly overblown musical adapted from the Boris Pasternak novel with a moving chamber musical hidden inside.

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Kelli Barrett as Lara and Tam Mutu as Yurii in a scene from the Broadway musical “Doctor Zhivago” (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

Kelli Barrett as Lara and Tam Mutu as Yurii in a scene from the Broadway musical “Doctor Zhivago” (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin, Critic

Where is John Doyle when we really need him to whip new life into a musical?  [Answer:  he’s directing another Broadway musical, The Visit.] There’s a moving chamber musical hidden amidst all the incessantly dashing chorus kids, shifting scenery, smoke effects, loud explosions and eerily surreal video projections that are the raison d’être  of this adaptation of the Nobel Prize winning novel by Boris Pasternak.   This more-is-more approach to the new musical Doctor Zhivago—written by Michael Weller (libretto), Michael Korie & Amy Powers (lyrics) and Lucy Simon (music), choreographed by Kelly Devine and directed by Des McAnuff—dulls any emotional impact the story and the characters might have evoked.

The scenes that work best are the relatively quiet ones in which the three characters of the central romantic triangle, Yurii Zhivago, doctor and poet (Tam Mutu); Lara Guishar, nurse and muse (Kelli Barrett); and Tonia Gromeko, Zhivago’s childhood love interest and wife (Lora Lee Gayer) pour their hearts out in song.  They are sometimes joined by the extra “corners” trying to make amorous headway:  Pasha Antipov/Strelnikov, passionate Communist/sadist and Lara’s husband (Paul Alexander Nolan); and Viktor Komarovsky, aristocratic child molester/Lara’s lover (Tom Hewitt).

The central plot of Zhivago places the passions of the title character, his lovely, steady wife Tonia and the passionate, windblown Lara amidst the upheavals of early twentieth century Russia, torn apart by Czarist violence, class warfare, defeat in the bloodbath of World War I and the revolution that pitted the left wing factions against each other and the White Russians who defended the old guard.   Orphaned and poverty-stricken, young Yurii is taken in by the kindly, rich Gromekos (Jamie Jackson and Jacqueline Antaramian, both warm and solid) whose daughter Tonia becomes his best friend and his loyal wife.  At the same time, impoverished Lara and her mother (Pilar Millhollen, registering in a tiny role) are taken under the wing of lawyer Viktor Komarovsky who sponsors them in a dress shop.  Komarovsky takes young Lara into his bed and becomes obsessively possessive, particularly when she becomes involved with and marries Pasha, the hothead who goes off to fight with the Czar’s army in the First World War only to lead a mutiny.  Pasha is obsessed not only with gaining dictatorial control of his rural town but with getting even with Komarovsky and his bourgeois ilk.

The paths of all these characters crisscross while Russia goes up in flames, often burying their fiery sexual conflicts under tons of over-amplified gunfire and strident, stompingly choreographed anthems (“Forward March,” “Blood on the Snow,” “Nowhere to Hide”).  The principal characters’ songs such as  Yurii/Lara’s first duet “Watch the Moon” and their last, “On the Edge of Time” reflect Doctor Zhivago’s second profession, poet.  Strelnikov’s “No Mercy at All” blasts out his savage, scorched earth philosophy which hides his true frustration, his desperate hatred of the man who defiled Lara.  Tonia and Lara even get a chance to meet.  They sing “It Comes as No Surprise,” a surprising dry-eyed encounter that reveals that both women deserve Yurii’s love in different ways.  Komarovsky is given “Komarovsky’s Lament” in which his bombastic façade crumbles in the face of a society falling apart and a city in flames.

Paul Alexander Nolan as Pasha Antipov/Strelnikov in a scene from the Broadway musical “Doctor Zhivago” (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

Paul Alexander Nolan as Pasha Antipov/Strelnikov in a scene from the Broadway musical “Doctor Zhivago” (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

Doctor Zhivago, at the Broadway Theatre, is closer in spirit to the overripe David Lean classic film (1965) than the convoluted Pasternak novel (1957).  This production, designed by Michael Scott Mitchell (sets), Paul Tazewell (costumes),  Howell Binkley (lighting) and  Sean Nieuwenhuis (projections), is impressively crafted.  These three artists’ contributions reveal as much about the time and place as the script or the bland, but melodic score.  Watching how the elegant middle and upper class settings deteriorate into wastelands and how clothing defines class becomes a show in itself, not sufficient to sustain an evening, but wonderful to gaze at.

To veteran director, McAnuff’s credit, the show feels sweeping rather than plodding.  He knows how to let the characters communicate but couldn’t rein in the sheer volume of the material.

Mr. Mutu is a big, handsome man with a strong pop baritone voice.  His Zhivago never becomes melodramatic.  Ms. Gayer’s Tonia is a beautifully shaped character who, ironically, comes across as more deserving of Zhivago’s loyalty and affection than Lara.  This is quite an accomplishment when the script is tilted mercilessly towards his mistress.  Ms. Barrett’s Lara never quite achieves the world-shattering passions that would inspire a door-stopper-sized novel. However, she is a fine singer who pairs nicely with Mr. Mutu.

Paul Alexander Nolan nearly walks away with the show with his passionate, brilliantly sung Pasha/Strelnikov.  We see his youthful gawkiness turn into panther-like villainy, his energy flying out across the theatre.  Hewitt somehow finds the humanity in Komarovsky.

Doctor Zhivago is a giant package dispensing voluptuously handsome, but heavy-handed gifts of song, dance and drama.   Its faults are more of over-eagerness to package a giant novel in the confines of the stage than lack of talent and creativity.

Doctor Zhivago (through May 10, 2015)

Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway at 53rd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.Telecharge.com

More information:  http://www.DoctorZhivagoBroadway.com

Running time:  two hours and 40 minutes including one intermission

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Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (361 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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