The Broadway Theatre
1681 Broadway at 53rd St.
Tuesday - Sunday through April 3, $19.17 - $157
The first act of Doctor Zhivago is a near disaster, filled with way too much spit and sweat (and intestines), ill-defined characters, jaw-droppingly inane and insulting projections, and a cantilevered stage that looks as if the actors might slide right into the audience. The most exciting moment came when a gentleman near the front of the orchestra let loose a series of rafter-rattling snores that got everyone’s attention. But after intermission, this long-in-the-works musical based on Boris Pasternak’s epic 1957 novel and David Lean’s Oscar-nominated 1965 historical romance turned into a much more thrilling tale, finally finding its own voice instead of trying to be a clumsy mash-up of Fiddler on the Roof and Les Misérables. The first act traps itself between overexplication and general confusion as two-time Tony-winning director Des McAnuff (The Who’s Tommy, Jersey Boys) and book writer Michael Weller (who has written such plays as Loose Ends and Spoils of War and such screenplays as Hair and Ragtime) try to narrow the focus of the wide-ranging story down to a dangerous love triangle while also including elements of the sweeping social, political, and economic changes tearing through Russia between 1903 and 1930, as Tsar Nicholas II, Lenin, and Stalin face the Russo-Japanese War, the Russian Revolution, WWI, and the rise of Fascism. And they get little help from lyricists Amy Powers and Michael Korie and composer Lucy Simon (The Secret Garden), who consistently cater to the lowest common denominator, leaving little to the imagination, especially amid all the explosions and gunfire. In “Two Worlds,” a group of Muscovites declare, “Ever since the ancient riders / Crossed the great divide, / Russia is a land where / Rich and poor live side by side. / Two worlds, / Of the plough and the sword. Two worlds, / Of the serf and the lord. / Two worlds, the oppressed, the elite, / And never the two shall meet.” Just as the theme of two worlds pervades the plot, the two acts are like two different worlds as well.
The second act is everything the first is not: Exiting, romantic, and involving, with moments worthy of an epic Broadway musical, even if there is still plenty of clunky dialogue and melodramatic lyrics. “Nothing comes before your verse,” Zhivago’s wife, Tonia (Lora Lee Gayer), tells her husband. “We fled Moscow for peace of mind. No one’s troubling us here. It’s time to be selfish and follow your heart.” To which Zhivago responds, “My heart is here . . . with my family.” Later, the partisans sing, “Wherever you run, / There’s nowhere to hide. / The mountain is steep. / The river is wide.” The cast won’t make anyone forget about Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Rod Steiger, Alec Guinness, Geraldine Chaplin, Tom Courtenay, and Ralph Richardson, the stars of the film, but they work hard through the mostly middling material. Tam Mutu (City of Angels, Les Misérables) is a resolute Yurii Andreyevich Zhivago, a very serious doctor, poet, and aristocrat desperate to save his family while also impossibly drawn to his true love, Lara (a heartfelt Kelli Barrett), who is beholden to well-connected local magistrate Viktor Komarovsky (a bold Tom Hewitt) but married to revolution leader Pasha (Paul Alexander Nolan). Costume designer Paul Tazewell dresses Barrett in blue throughout, separating her from the masses, stressing her individuality. Nolan’s performance is representative of the show as a whole; he is jumpy and annoying in the first act, strong and undaunted in the second. Barrett and Gayer excel with their voices, particularly in the duet “It Comes as No Surprise.” And yes, “Somewhere My Love (Lara’s Theme)” makes an appearance. The show started life as Zhivago in 2006 at the La Jolla Playhouse, then was resurrected as Doctor Zhivago five years later in Australia. Although it clearly was not ready for Broadway yet, there’s much to admire in the second act — if you can survive the first, which deserves being banished to Siberia forever.