May 7, 2015

Dr. Zhivago

Broadway Theatre
May 2, 2015 matinee

Last weekend, I saw a performance of the new Broadway musical, Doctor Zhivago. Based on the book written by Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago was denied publication in the USSR due to its anti-socialist nature and persuasive, political insinuations of a corrupt and volatile Soviet government, but successfully gained publication in Italy in 1957. The book has also been translated into a 1965 film starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie. The musical depicts the life of Yurii Zhivago, a physician and poet living in Russia during the Russian Revolution and World War I, as he strives to fulfill his passion for poetry and his love for Lara, while eluding troubled Soviet revolutionaries.   

The storyline is a bit intricate and convoluted, so the plot must be researched prior to seeing the stage musical, much like Les Miserables. The backgrounds of the characters are presented in the opening number, but if you blink, you may miss a very important piece of the puzzle. So, please do your homework. The show will be much more enjoyable and meaningful. 

In a nutshell, Yurii Zhivago is taken in by the Gromekos after the death of his mother when he is only a young boy. The Gromekos have a young daughter named Tonia who is about the same age as Yurii and the two fall in love and marry as adults. At the wedding, an angry and unrecognized woman (Lara) storms in with a gun and attempts to shoot the ruthless lawyer, Komarovsky, who we later find out has been forcing her into a romantic relationship for some time. Lara and Yurii meet for the first time and he suspects that there is a justifiable motive for her seemingly insane actions. She disappears and later marries Pasha, but when Pasha finds out about the affair with Komarovsky, he storms off and joins the Imperial Russian Army. Yurii, who is now working in battlefield hospitals, and Lara, who is volunteering as a nurse, cross paths once again and fall in love. To avoid spoilers, I will simply say that the remainder of Doctor Zhivago chronicles their love story and their tragedy. 

Doctor Zhivago is a beautifully crafted story and a valuable lesson in world history. Although they were unrecognized by the Tony nominators, the cast of Doctor Zhivago is really quite phenomenal. Ultimately, I believe that this production received a lukewarm reception, not because of a dearth of talent, but because the content is simply too heavy for Broadway audiences. 

The mood of the production is dark and grim, even bleak at times, especially during the second act. After all, the story does take place during a war and the writers could not avoid the depiction of bloodshed on stage. Audiences want to laugh and smile when they go to the theatre and many theatre-goers prefer shows that offer something a bit lighter and easier on the brain (not a history lesson). Further, I don’t believe that most Broadway audiences appreciate the historical significance of the story and the political power and influence of the book. Lastly, I didn’t see much media coverage of this production compared with other new musicals this season. Dr. Zhivago was sorely lacking much-needed “hype”. 

In my opinion, this lukewarm reception is unfortunate because the historical context is extremely interesting and the book is quite thought-provoking if you can get past the gunshots and explosions and bloodshed. The characters in Dr. Zhivago offer a degree of depth that is not always evident in modern theatre; in this sense, the show was refreshing because it is “something different” on a Broadway stage. Yet, I’m not terribly surprised that the show will close this Sunday because I can see that it’s not for everyone. I liked it. 

Tam Mutu makes his Broadway debut as Dr. Zhivago. He was an impressive stage presence and had great chemistry with Kelli Barrett, who played his love interest, Lara. I thought that Kelli Barrett carried the show and truly embodied her character. Her singing had a mournful quality to it, ideal for this character. My favorite performance (and probably the favorite of many people) was Paul Nolan as Pasha. I cannot even fathom how he did not get a Tony nomination for his performance. His character certainly undergoes the greatest transformation of anyone, and his performance encompasses both comedic and dramatic acting. The beauty of his performance is that, despite playing an abhorrent villain, I could not hate him, which is truly a testament to his portrayal of his character’s depth. As Tonia, Lora Lee Gayer sang beautifully, shared what was probably the best scene in the entire show with Kelli Barrett, and wore the most gorgeous costumes. Tom Hewitt, as Komarovsky, was just about perfect for his complex character. A great cast. 

Because of my seat in the front row, I had limited view of the sets, so I will not comment on them. The music (Lucy Simon) was pretty good. The most memorable song was Paul Nolan’s comedic number in the first act (I believe it was called “It’s A Godsend”). Some of Kelli Barrett’s songs were also quite beautiful (and mournful), like “When the Music Played”. 

Dr. Zhivago will close on Broadway this Sunday, May 10. 

1 comment:

  1. I love history, and would prolly find this interesting in a different context...but I don't think it would be something I would like to see in a theatre...I am absolutely one of the people who goes to theatre to be entertained and laugh. This sounds extremely depressing, sadly. I m sure the cast was talented, and I hate the fact that more actors lost their jobs, but I really don't know why they thought this would ever make a good musical!