NEW YORK (AP) — The folks behind the new Broadway musical “Doctor Zhivago” promise it is “sure to steal your heart.” They apparently hope to do so by bludgeoning you into unconsciousness and then cutting you open with a scimitar.
Visually beautiful but one-dimensional, the show that opened Tuesday at the Broadway Theatre is breathless and bombastic to the point of silly, undercutting not only the novel by Boris Pasternak but also some really wonderful actors in Tam Mutu and Kelli Barrett, and what could have been a memorable score by Lucy Simon.
Director Des McAnuff is apparently of the belief that all his actors need to constantly sprint, slide or go full-out insane to really illustrate PASSION. The stage is tilted at an insane angle to showcase his use of fire and snow and ice and blood. Nearby, in another theater, “Les Miserables,” another flag-waving tale of revolution, looks absolutely subtle in comparison.
“Doctor Zhivago” is the tale of five intertwined lovers set during final days of Czarist Russia and the 1917 Revolution. It is epic, indeed, but here the epic nature seems just an excuse for adding flashy elements.
Will someone kindly tell the projection designer that it’s not necessary to project a massive photo of Lara when she’s ALREADY onstage? And will someone please tell the prop guy in charge of weapons that the rifle discharges are so loud that they’re triggering snowfall that’s supposed to fall from the rafters later in the show? Oh, and one actress’ attempted decapitation may have been a touch unnecessary on top of the several executions, group hangings and spilled guts.
Book writer Michael Weller thinks the audience need to be spoon-fed history in huge chunks, and so has used a shovel. And his characters are ridiculously flimsy: Zhivago is so noble your teeth will ache and the bad guys so cruel they almost twirl moustaches.
Weller also has forced the cast to speak in a sort of Epic Russian. A sample: “The White Army will hunt down these savages and drench their cursed Red Flag of revolution in their own treacherous blood!” What this show needs isn’t a Doctor Zhivago, it’s a script doctor.
Lyrics by Michael Korie and Amy Powers aren’t much better, apparently also drinking from the same overwrought cup: “Blood on the snow!/The blood of the martyrs/Spilled for the dream/Of a new world regime!” Simon’s melodies are lovely — “It Comes as No Surprise,” ”When the Music Played” and “Watch the Moon” are achingly good — but struggle under the weight of such blunt words. (“Somewhere My Love,” or “Lara’s Theme,” from the 1965 film has survived the jump to the stage.)
Michael Scott-Mitchell’s sets are pretty nifty, including a clever motif of piled-up chairs and the giving the illusion of space with several arches, though his train is really just a raised girder, an incongruous sight since much of the rest is an attempt to be faithful to the period.
Howell Binkley bathes the stage in an epic grayness while the heroes get godlike light. Costume designer Paul Tazewell pulls us back into winter with heavy coats, fur hats and dark clothes, except for Lara, who gets to wear blue. (Was he worried we wouldn’t be able to spot her?)
Mutu and Barrett bravely give it their all and are utterly perfect as the star-crossed lovers. He is actually understated in a show that is anything but, and captures the inner turmoil of a forbidden love. Barrett’s soprano is gorgeous and she is a worthy Lara, bewitching as a woman both tortured and strong.
Tom Hewitt is also good as the slippery Komarovsky and he, surprisingly, emerges rather likable by the end, but Paul Alexander Nolan very nearly falls into parody as he careens from wide-eyed revolutionary to cold-blooded psycho in a leather coat.
But pulling anyone back from the brink is not something McAnuff does naturally. One actor in “Doctor Zhivago” fake-vomits onstage after a bout of drinking and athletic Cossack dancing, and after almost three hours of this highly choreographed mess, you might want to, too.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits
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