With jukebox musicals and screen-to-stage spectacles dominating the Great White Way, is it time once again for a big, earnest, near-operatic musical about love and death, passion and politics, romance and revolution? That’s the question posed — though not definitively answered — by “Zhivago,” the sprawling, ambitious and occasionally stirring production preeming at the La Jolla Playhouse.
Composer Lucy Simon (“The Secret Garden”) has been tinkering with a musical version of the beloved Boris Pasternak epic ever since she bought the rights to the novel a dozen years ago. That passion shines through in a passel of melodious ballads (“When the Music Played,” “Watch the Moon,” “Now,” “On the Edge of Time”) that move in pleasing yet unpredictable musical directions, even when they are hampered by Michael Korie and Amy Powers’ often less-than-poetic lyrics, or Steve Canyon Kennedy’s overbearing sound design.
Simon’s thoughtful music is well served by Don Sebeskey’s inventive orchestrations (for just 10 musicians) and terrific vocal performances by all the principals.
The main stumbling block for the creative team is the most basic one: how to streamline Pasternak’s teeming novel without reducing the characters to cardboard and the politics to pulp. Faced with the brutal task of crafting a few scenes to convey massive chunks of story and flesh out five key characters, book writer Michael Weller cuts so close to the bone that there’s little left for either the actors or the audience to chew on.
So Yurii Zhivago (handsome, vocally persuasive Ivan Hernandez) is passionate and noble, but in a generic way; his wife Tonya (sweet-voiced Rena Strober) merely kind and good; his fellow aristocrat Viktor Komarovsky (Tom Hewitt) purely cynical; and his romantic and ideological rival Pasha (the dashing Matt Bogart) predictably fiery and cruel. Even radiant newcomer Jessica Burrows, with her velvety soprano, remains an abstraction as Lara, the beautiful, troubled woman at the center of the story’s love triangles.
Director Des McAnuff brings his usual canny stagecraft to bear, engineering cinematic transitions and deftly calibrating big, choral set pieces and quieter, more intimate scenes. The most successful moments are often the smallest, as when Zhivago and Lara confess their love over a dead soldier’s body in “Now,” or when Lara and Tonya discover compassion rather than rivalry in “It Comes as No Surprise.” (There’s a single nicely detailed vignette of Russian life in “It’s a Godsend”; we need more.) Overall, the staging is swift and sure. But the pace of the storytelling is nearly relentless.
At this juncture, the creators need to make a call: Either beef up the characterizations and context, so the musical retains more of the scope and intimacy of the original story, or pare it down to a smaller-scale, more poetic tale. One thing, however, is clear: This bold, overwhelming tuner needs to learn how to breathe.