Thursday, 14 April 2011

Doctor Zhivago, Music by Lucy Simon, April 14, 2011

 Doctor Zhivago
Music by Lucy Simon; Book by Michael Weller; Lyrics by Michael Korie and Amy Powers
Her Majesty’s Theatre, venue, until May 22, 2011

The gestation of a new musical is never easy. Doctor Zhivago is not a jukebox musical with ready-made popular songs (Jersey Boys, Rock of Ages), nor an adaptation of a movie musical (Mary Poppins, Hairspray). It is, like Les Miserables, an adaptation from fiction.

Although there is much to recommend it, Doctor Zhivago needs development before it is fully formed.

Lucy Simon’s score features some rousing chorus numbers, passionate duets and soaring solos. Des McAnuff’s deft direction keeps the action moving and Michael Scott-Mitchell’s monumental design is impressive.

As the sensitive, idealistic poet, Yurii Zhivago, Anthony Warlow’s rich, warm, resonant voice is always thrilling. His duets with Lucy Maunder as Lara, At The Edge of Time and Now, are passionate. When he sings, the show comes to life.

Martin Crewes is fiery as Lara’s bolshevik husband, Pasha, Taneel Van Zyl has warmth and ardour as Tonia, Zhivago’s abandoned wife, and Bartholomew John is authoritative as the bourgeois villain, Komarovsky.

The chorus numbers provide some dramatic moments, such as the powerful battlefield anthem, Forward March For The Csar. Love Finds You is a stirring, beautifully harmonised quintet by Warlow, Maunder, Crewes, Van Zyl and John. It highlights the core narrative about three men who love Lara and two women who love Zhivago.

Michael Weller’s adaptation effectively contracts Boris Pasternak’s expansive 1958 novel about love and revolution into under three hours. It is no mean feat incorporating the Russian Revolution and First World War with a love story spanning several decades.

However, there are significant flaws. Maunder is miscast and uncomfortable as Lara, lacking the character’s essential passion, sensuality and dark side. She looks in pain rather than in love as she claws at Zhivago’s chest. Van Zyl appears more appropriate casting for Lara.

The onstage relationship between Zhivago and Lara lacks chemistry, craving a palpable sexual tension to convince us of their magnetic attraction across vast distances and decades.

One can’t help feeling that Simon’s musical style is derivative and repetitive. Korie and Powers’ lyrics, although telling the story clearly, employ contrived rhymes. The narrative keeps Lara and Zhivago apart until the latter half. Although this reflects the novel, it leaves us without an effective dramatic and emotional arc for the primary relationship.

Musicals evolve over time. If Zhivago reaches Broadway it could be a whole new creature.

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