I don’t know when two hours and 45 minutes have flown by as quickly as they did at the new Broadway musical Doctor Zhivago, which opened last night at the Broadway Theatre. Under Des McAnuff’s direction, with a book by playwright Michael Weller, the span of years between 1903 and 1930, covering a world war, bloody revolution, love, betrayal, marriage, death and so much more, fly by.
Based on the 1958 Nobel Prize-winning novel by Russian author Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago tells the story of Yurii Zhivago, an upper class doctor and poet, and Lara Guishar, a struggling seamstress turned revolutionary. Both are married to someone else but their love affair plays out through all the strife and turmoil of early 20th century Russia. Tam Mutu, a leading man in London who is making his Broadway debut, plays Yurii and Kelli Barrett (Wicked, Rock of Ages) is Lara.
Composer Lucy Simon provides an appropriately sweeping score and Michael Korie and Amy Powers offer rousing songs and some nice duets. Ron Melrose is the music director.
I was involved throughout, but at a distance. I didn’t feel a sense of intimacy as we whirled from scene to scene, pausing for a song or two then moving on, ending on an upbeat note with the final number. If you liked the 1965 movie, which I did, you’ll catch glimpses of it, but the tone and pace are brighter and faster. It’s an entertaining evening of musical theatre, but without the sense of history of its predecessor. And I don’t know why Weller changed the ending so much.
Michael Scott-Mitchell’s sets are often incomplete, taking up just the sides of the stage, which helps convey the large scale of the story as well as enhance the feeling of destruction and desolation of the country. But they also contribute to the lack of intimacy, except in the scene in the ravaged country mansion where Yurii and Lara are able to shut out the world for 10 days and be together. Large icicles hang from the ceiling and the windows are covered with frost. Howell Binkley’s lighting casts a blue glow over the room, giving the sense of deep cold that was so much a part of the movie and yet is otherwise missing from the musical.
The opening number “Two Worlds” sets the theme of the show — aristocracy and peasants, humbled aristocracy (those lucky enough not to have been murdered) and revolutionaries, White Army and Red Army, wife and mistress. These opposing world are often presented together at opposite sides of the stage. This is most effectively done in the library scene when Tonia Zhivago, Yuri’s wife (Lora Lee Gayer), and Lara meet for the first time and find a bond between them. On the left, in “It Comes As No Surprise,” Lara sings of her guilt over her love for Yurii and Tonia on the right sings of her love for him and her discovery that she can’t hate Lara after meeting her. “I feel him closer when she is near,” they sing.
Barrett, whose voice is especially lovely, portrays a more innocent Lara than Julie Christie did in the movie. It’s harder to understand why men are so obsessed with her — Yurii, as well as her husband, Pasha Antipov (Paul Alexander Nolan) and the aristocrat Victor Komarovsky (Tom Hewitt), who had an affair with her when she was a vulnerable teenager in need of financial support. When she and Yurii sing “On the Edge of Time” in the decaying mansion just before they are to part, their love seems more tender than passionate. Yurii had sung a similar duet, “Watch the Moon,” when parting from Tonia at the train station on his way to fight in the war against Germany.
Kelly Devine choreographs some lively Russian dances and Paul Tazewell’s costume’s nicely carry out the two worlds theme — “the oppressed and the elite and never shall they meet.”
Dr. Zhivago has been making its way to Broadway for nearly a decade. It premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in May 2006. In 2010 it was revised in Australia with McAnuff as director.
My friend Janet and I left the Broadway Theatre in high spirits after the stirring “Finale,” but a feel-good ending is not what Dr. Zhivago is about. It is, though, what Broadway is about, so, to borrow from one of the songs, it comes as no surprise.