The creators of “Doctor Zhivago,” the musical, have apparently learned much from their 2006 run at La Jolla Playhouse, where audiences reportedly felt history dwarfed the central story. This new version makes love, not war, the central theme, and to moving effect. While squeezing Boris Pasternak’s 500-pager onto the stage creates a densely packed show, there are plenty of moments that allow the key musical numbers to shine and avoid the shadows cast by David Lean’s film.
For a tuner, this one is certainly front-loaded with funerals, weddings, war and revolution. But Michael Weller’s taut dialogue and Michael Scott-Mitchell’s deceptively simple automated set smoothly establish the early life of Yurii Zhivago. Anthony Warlow’s poet-doctor is no cipher, like Omar Shariff in Lean’s pic, but rather a tortured man with a divided heart. The busy start means that there’s a bit too much exposition as the five leads play out their complex and overlapping search for enduring love against the tumultuous backdrop of 20th century Russia.
But this musical hits its stride by the time Zhivago and Lara (Lucy Maunder) begin their passionate affair, with the haunting “Now.” The lyrics unfold with the letter of a dead soldier to his lover, then morph into the growing emotions of Zhivago and Lara, stationed in a military hospital. Lucy Simon’s unabashedly romantic score continues to deliver, with the rousing “Forward March for the Czar,” which she and lyricists Michael Korie and Amy Powers effectively reprise twice. It is first sung by a chorus of soldiers fighting back the Germans; in its last incarnation, a lone wounded grunt sings it, signaling the start of the Russian civil war.
The second act gives the key players far more room to develop chemistry. When Lara and Zhivago’s loyal wife, Tonia (a poised Taneel Van Zyl), meet for the first time, they sing “It Comes as No Surprise,” a heart-wrenching song of mutual admiration. Maunder’s feisty yet vulnerable portrayal of Lara makes such respect entirely plausible, and that veracity extends to her feelings for Zhivago, husband Pasha (a riveting Martin Crewes) and lover Viktor Komarovsky (a gruff Bartholomew John).
In act one, director Des McAnuff is a master general who makes sense of all the converging plotlines and scene changes. Fortunately, Weller’s book gives him more opportunity for nuance in the pensive second act.
Teresa Negroponte’s costumes reflect the faded grandeur of a doomed aristocracy, as well as the grit of war. And Kelly Devine’s vibrant choreography incorporates traditional Russian dancing without ever resorting to pastiche.