Making a musical of “Doctor Zhivago” (based on the 1957 novel by Boris Pasternak, by way of the 1965 David Lean movie with Omar Sharif and Julie Christie) seems like a bold undertaking. But you have to wonder which of the numerous plots and subplots in this sprawling narrative, set in turbulent 1917 Russia, creatives Michael Weller (book), Michael Korie & Amy Powers (lyrics) and Lucy Simon (music) would choose to musicalize and dramatize. The answer is: All of them. The immortal love story of Zhivago and his Lara is up there, but so, too, is the entire Russian Revolution, which in 1917 completed its upheaval in less than a year. Here it seems to drag on for ages.
The echoes of “Les Miserables” are so intrusive that it takes a firm act of will to shake off impressions of 19th century France and reset the mental clock for a later generation and a different country. The pounding guns, the powerful explosions, and a standing army that gets a lot of action do, indeed, transport us back to civil war, but first the prologue jumps ahead to the 1930s and lands in a Moscow graveyard, a fair indication of the general mood of the show. Lighting designer Howell Binkley does dark quite well, Paul Tazewell contributes the fashionable mourning weeds, and Simon supplies the appropriately dirge-like music for these early, depressive scenes.
The graveside prayers being offered by a Russian Orthodox priest are for Yurii Zhivago (Tam Mutu, who appeared in the West End production of “Les Miz”), a dedicated doctor and a great poet. The chief mourner is his beloved Lara (Kelli Barrett, in incongruously robust voice for that dainty princess), who flashes back on another funeral, decades in the past.
More darkness, more gloom, more fashionable mourning weeds, but this time no respectful prayers for the deceased, a once-wealthy merchant who lost his fortune and killed himself in disgrace, leaving his young son, Yurii, a motherless, penniless orphan.
There’s one more funeral (darkness, gloom, mourning weeds) to attend, however, before we get to livelier entertainments like political anarchy and civil war. This one lays to rest the father of young Lara Guishar and her helpless mother — prey to the villainous Viktor Komarovsky, given menacing presence and thunderous voice by the ever-reliable and extremely welcome Tom Hewitt.
With the groundwork laid for the fateful love story of Yurii and Lara, we can move on to the slaughter of war. Now grown up, but still an impressionable girl at heart, Lara is taken with, and eventually marries, Pasha Antipov (Paul Alexander Nolan), a student political activist (“It’s a Godsend”) who will mature into the Marxist leader known to the world as Strelnikov.
Curly haired and slight of figure, Nolan (who’s played the Guy in “Once” and Jesus in “Jesus Christ Superstar”) makes a convincing student rebel. But despite the snazzy leather duds he wears when he’s on the barricades vowing “No Mercy at All,” he’s decidedly unprepossessing as a fiery revolutionary.
Yurii, meanwhile, has grown up and become the respected Doctor Zhivago when he finally meets and falls in love with Lara — on the day of his wedding to Tonia Gromeko (Lora Lee Gayer). The poor bride probably senses that she’s already lost her husband, which might explain why Gayer, who has a nice voice, strains it with her overwrought delivery of her romantic signature song, “Watch the Moon.”
Although the unfortunate timing of their meeting keeps the ill-fated lovers apart, Simon, who writes in a musical style of overblown romanticism, gives them an appropriate song (“Now”) to express their yearning. But coming as it does right after “Somewhere My Love,” the lighter and lovelier theme song (by Maurice Jarre and Paul Francis Webster) from the movie, it slips right out of mind.
But then, the lovers themselves tend to slip right out of mind. Lara may be too vigorous a presence in Barrett’s hearty performance, but Mutu’s Doctor Zhivago isn’t forceful enough. Which is actually rather strange, because the other actors tend to sing at top pitch, perhaps to make themselves heard over the gunfire, explosions and cannon booms from the never-ending wars being played out in the background.
Helmer Des McAnuff, who directed the show’s premiere at La Jolla in 2006 and a revised version at the Lyric Theater in Sydney, gives quite a lot of play to these bombastic war scenes. But the book isn’t especially coherent on the history of the Russian Revolution, which we experience here as ensemble players who rush on stage as soldiers wearing the white armbands of the tsar’s Imperial army — only to rush back on, minutes later, in the same fighting gear, but wearing the red armbands of the Bolsheviks. And by the time the red flags are waved to signal victory, we seem to be back in “Les Miz.”