Doctor Zhivago

by Loren Noveck · April 25, 2015

doctor zhivago

Tam Mutu, Kelli Barrett | Matthew Murphy

For an epic, sweeping love story that includes the Russian Revolution, World War I, two weddings, three funerals, and constant daring escapes from Russian troops, directed by a Broadway veteran like Des McAnuff, Doctor Zhivago (book by Michael Weller, lyrics by Michael Korie and Amy Powers, music by Lucy Simon) is remarkably dull. Part of this can be chalked up to the music, which all muddles together into a single mood, occasionally vaguely Russian-tinged (and once picking up a strain from the movie's famous theme song), but neither memorable, let alone catchy, nor interestingly complex. Part of it is the doggedly literal storytelling (I've seen neither book nor movie, but this seems to be drawing much more directly from the film than the much more complicated and intricately plotted novel) that moves from event to event without taking a moment to think about how they'll translate to the stage, or looking for anything like theatrical ways to tell that story.The one exception is Michael Scott-Mitchell's intricate and constantly evolving set, though even there, there's a disconnect between the visual language and the rest of the play, with the set drawing on motifs and visual themes--notably chairs--that don't entirely resonate. (And projections are used in confusingly literal ways.) 

The story is simple: against a backdrop of war, Yuri Zhivago, doctor and poet, and Lara Antipova live out a star-crossed romance. The show flashes back from Yuri’s funeral, where Lara is the only mourner, to their tragic, separate childhoods. When their paths first cross, Yuri is newly married to his childhood sweetheart; Lara is about to be wed to an aspiring young revolutionary who will disappear at the front in World War I. When they meet again at the battlefield hospital where he works and where she serves as a nurse while searching for her husband, their passion blossoms, but both are too honorable to fully express it. After the war, Zhivago and his bourgeois family (wife, father-in-law, and son) flee Moscow to the in-laws’ former country estate, which happens to be in the outskirts of the exact remote town where Lara has settled after the war. (Yuri, knowing this, resists the plan to escape there, but they have little choice by this point.) They have a brief affair, then part. Zhivago is then kidnapped by a group of partisans and by the time he makes his way back, his family has fled for Paris. Only Lara remains--yet even now, their love cannot thrive, as he encourages her to take a last opportunity to escape, claiming falsely that he will join her later. 

Aiming for historical scope, Zhivago succeeds neither in the way of an Andrew-Lloyd-Webber/ Les Miserables-esque spectacle, bombastic but effective through with majestic chords and broad strokes of character and plot, nor in a more thoughtful, intellectually satisfying Sondheim-esque way, with intricacy and subtle character development. Here, we get just enough political detail to add an anti-Communist/pro-Tsarist color to the proceedings, but not enough to give broader significance to the events in the plot. We get paper-thin characters whose moments of nobility or sacrifice carry no emotional weight because we've been given no reason to care for them. (It's a bad sign that Lara's most distinct character trait is that she always, always wears blue; even her nurses' uniform is blue where all the others are olive drab, which feels like solving a dramaturgical problem with wardrobe.) Even the central love story--lovers star-crossed for decades who find themselves only briefly against the backdrop of their entire world crumbling, which should be the stuff of the most gloriously pulpy melodrama--feels bloodless, perhaps because the passion between Yuri and Lara seems fairly arbitrary. 

In a strange way, everyone is tediously well behaved; yes, there is battlefield brutality, but all the deaths seem programmed into the plot. In the end, even the villains respect Yuri and Lara's great love, a love that is spoken of constantly but has almost no emotional weight. It's not the fault of Tam Mutu and Kelli Barrett, but they don't have great chemistry either. 

The most truly noteworthy thing about the show is perhaps its astonishing number of producers--I counted more than forty in the program. And the show certainly feels like something drafted by committee: not even the lowest common denominator, but the absolute most innocuous, unobjectionable choice made, every single time. Unfortunately, what that creates is utter blandness.






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