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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
DOCTOR ZHIVAGO
at Broadway Theatre

EMPTY SPECTACLE
By MATT WINDMAN

  Tam Mutu, Kelli Barrett and company/ Ph: Matthew Murphy

Given the unparalleled, seemingly unending success of Les Miz, it’s no surprise that other musicals based on classic novels – also full of violence, romanticism and historical backdrops – continue to pop up. For instance, six years ago, there was a terrible musical of A Tale of Two Cities, which quickly flopped on Broadway. You could also count all those dreary Frank Wildhorn musicals like Jekyll and Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel and Dracula.  

Now there’s Doctor Zhivago, based on Boris Pasternak’s lengthy 1957 Nobel Prize-winning epic about a good-natured, once-wealthy medical doctor with a knack for writing poetry who gets caught in the storm of the Russian Revolution of the early 20th century and involved in a complicated love triangle. It is, of course, best known for David Lean’s 1965 weighty film adaptation with Julie Christie and Omar Sharif.

This big-budget, large-scale musical is directed by Des McAnuff, who is known for tech-savvy productions like Tommy and Jersey Boys. The score is by composer Lucy Simon (The Secret Garden) and lyricists Michael Korie (Grey Gardens) and Amy Powers, and the book comes from Michael Weller. After initial productions at La Jolla in California and Australia, it seems to have been dragged to Broadway. 

The musical is unexpectedly easy to follow in spite of heavy exposition, multiple character arcs and constant action. Although those familiar with the book may consider this adaptation to be a Cliff’s Notes version, achieving that kind of clarity is no small achievement.

The songs (mostly generic ballads) tend to sound the same. The writers fail to capture the emotional agony and historical turbulence that its characters confront. Also, adapting the ubiquitous “Lara’s Theme” music from the film into a love song reeks of desperation. As someone who treasures Simon’s extraordinary score of The Secret Garden, I found her work here especially disappointing. Too bad they didn’t just revive that instead!

McAnuff’s production is professionally competent (the scenes change quickly with minimal scenery) but lifeless. As if the comparisons to Les Miz weren’t obvious enough, there is a repeated visual motif of chairs stacked on top of each other, reminiscent of the Les Miz barricade sequence. You ultimately come away with no sense of why Doctor Zhivago has been turned into a musical in the first place – other than maybe some producer thinking it had commercial potential. It’s not a mess so much as a snooze. At a smaller space, the characters might have made more of a personal impact. But at the Broadway Theatre, all you see is an empty spectacle.

The lead actors are capable, but they turn in one-dimensional performances. Tam Mutu brings dashing looks to the title character but little else, and Paul Alexander Nolan (Jesus Christ Superstar) resembles just a rush of intensity, as if he was specifically directed to inject a dose of liveliness into this drab proceeding. Kelli Barrett sings well and is attractive, but she offers no personality as the elusive Lara, who is supposed to enchant so many men.  

Given that the show received zero Tony Award nominations (not unlike fellow new musicals It Shoulda Been You, Holler If Ya Hear Me, Finding Neverland and Honeymoon in Vegas) and its low grosses throughout previews, Doctor Zhivago will probably close in the coming weeks. Thus, another Les Miz wannabe bites the dust. 

 


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