Tuesday, April 21, 2015

A Grandeurless Epic, Undone by Its Own Sprawl

Review: Doctor Zhivago

Kelli Barrett and Tam Mutu lead the company of Doctor Zhivago, the new musical epic that just opened at the Broadway Theatre.

The problem in adapting any epic novel for the stage, let alone the musical stage, is that large swaths of the original story are forced to be omitted in the name of time constraints. A great adaptation distills the source material's essence while excising the plot points and characters it doesn't have time to fully explore, which can shift the story's focus but is not necessarily a bad thing. Unfortunately, the musical version of Doctor Zhivago that just opened at the Broadway Theatre is not a great adaptation, with the resulting show long on bombast but short on narrative coherence or emotional impact.

Those lacking a strong familiarity with the source material and/or Russian history will be hard pressed to follow the plot, but at its most basic level Doctor Zhivago is the story of the titular doctor's life during World War I and the ensuing Russian Revolution. To be slightly more specific, Yurii Zhivago is orphaned at a young age and raised by friend's of his previously wealthy family; the Zhivago fortune was squandered away by Yurii's father, although his new guardians appear equally wealthy so this distinction is something of a moot point (the show goes out of its way to mention a lot of details that don't seem to really affect the main plot). Zhivago grows up and dutifully marries his childhood sweetheart Tonia, but their wedding (or is it just a Christmas party?) is interrupted when the beautiful and mysterious Lara appears and attempts to shoot her much older lover Viktor Komarovsky. Eventually war breaks out, Zhivago joins the revolution as a doctor, and he and Lara continue to cross one another's paths in the most unlikely of ways as a forbidden romance blossoms.

The above summary doesn't touch on Lara's husband Pasha (who eventually becomes a prominent figure in postwar Russia and one of the piece's main antagonists), Zhivago's secondary profession as a widely read and beloved poet, or the murky politics that lead to Zhivago and other members of the bourgeois being hunted like animals. Given how much ground there is to cover, it's hard to blame bookwriter Michael Weller, composer Lucy Simon, and co-lyricists Michael Korie and Amy Powers for the musical's unwieldy narrative, but that doesn't change the fact that Doctor Zhivago is exceedingly difficult to follow and that the broadly written characters are almost impossible to care about. Trying to cram so much narrative into two and a half hours leaves very little time for character development, which dampens any momentum or heat to be found in the central romance. The characters are also so busy rushing from one plot point to the next that they rarely have time to just be, and even after the final curtain falls you feel like you hardly know anyone onstage.

Given the Herculean task before him, Weller does a reasonably good job of communicating a lot of information quickly, but loses crucial character motivations as a result. Shortly before the finale Zhivago and Lara are offered the chance at a happy ending which they don't take for unclear reasons, and Pasha's entire character arc is almost incoherent. Weller can't seem to decided which element (politics, romance, a critique of the horrors or war) is most important to him, and the show feels wandering and aimless as a result. Simon's music is generally very pretty, avoiding the kind of bombastic belting that can make this type of show almost unbearable. If anything, Simon could stand a bit more bite to her music; the group numbers attempt to portray an epic grandeur but often end up feeling slight.

The performers compensate for the lack of specificity by going for big emotions and occasionally cross the line into overacting, no an easy feat in an epic musical playing one of Broadway's largest houses. Leading man Tam Mutu is certainly dashing as Zhivago and has a fine singing voice, but fails to fully make up for his character's underwittten nature and ill-defined motivations. He also lacks any kind of chemistry with the often histrionic Kelli Barrett as Lara, which makes their grand love story a very difficult sell given the pair's limited interactions during the first act. By their final scene together they have settled into an effective groove, although it comes as too little too late. Barrett does deserve credit for dialing down her performance for the show's finale, which almost manages to be moving despite the minimal engagement the musical provokes up until that point.

Paul Alexander Nolan is something of a miracle as the mercurial Pasha. His character's motivations are even less defined/developed than Zhivago's, but somehow Nolan manages to create the most interesting and coherent characterization of the night, acting as a reliable anchor when the narrative ship goes astray. His numbers are easily the most memorable, and he sells the show's most logic-defying twist in a way that ultimately feels believable and even somewhat earned. Nolan's performance feels authentically epic without ringing false, and goes a long way towards hiding the material's flaws.

Director Des McAnuff has done a poor job of coaxing believable performances out of his cast, but his staging sure is neat to look at. Making excellent use of Michael Scott-Mitchell's ever evolving raked set (and the upstage projections by Sean Nieuwenhuis), McAnuff creates a constantly engaging series of stage pictures that are often more interesting than the actual story. Choreographer Kelly Devine doesn't have much to do - the choreographers so rarely do in these period epics - but what little dancing is present is at least well executed. Paul Tazewell's costumes aren't quite as lavish as you'd like them to be, but there's at least some level of opulence to them, especially as lit by Howell Binkley.

There is something charmingly old school about the broadly drawn, overly earnest Zhivago, even if it ultimately reminds you why this particular brand of mega musical went out of style by the late 1990s. The show covers a vast breadth of material but contains only the smallest amount of depth, resulting in a show that ultimately seems inconsequential despite the grand language and themes it pays lip service to. Doctor Zhivago's producers had to know they were taking a pretty big risk with this show, and they should be commended for gambling on serious-minded, original material. The gamble fails to yield any exciting dividends, but then again, you can't win them all.

1 comment:

  1. If you haven't seen the 1965 Oscar-winning film version of Doctor Zhivago, I highly recommend you watch it as a nice antidote after being thoroughly disappointed with this musical version. It's directed by David Lean (who previously won an Oscar for directing Lawrence Of Arabia), and stars Omar Sharif, Julie Christie and Geraldine Chaplin. You may already know this, but in case you don't Geraldine Chaplin has a unique heritage: her father was of course, Charlie Chaplin, and her maternal grandfather was Eugene O'Neill (O'Neill's daughter Oona was Charlie's wife and Geraldine's mother). Imagine that, having Charlie Chaplin for a father and Eugene O'Neill for a grandfather.