Broadway musicals are like chemistry sets. Even the smartest kid in the class occasionally conjures a potion smelling suspiciously of rotten eggs. That’s the case with Doctor Zhivago, the new musical spectacular devised by some of most experienced talents in the business. Somewhere along this show’s torturous nine-year journey from California to the Broadway Theatre, those talented alchemists neglected rule number one of adapting a classic, which is, of course: First, do no harm.
The 1957 Boris Pasternak novel, adapted for David Lean’s classic 1965 film starring Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Geraldine Chaplin and Alec Guinness. inspired the show. It had its premiere in 2006 at the La Jolla Playhouse, where director Des McAnuff (Jersey Boys) was in charge and where a number of Broadway-bound shows got their start. (A second production was done in Sydney, Australia.) The creatives include composer Lucy Simon (The Secret Garden), lyricists Michael Korie (Grey Gardens) and Amy Powers (who wrote “With One Look” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” the two best songs from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard ), and choreographer Kelly Devine (Rocky). The book is by playwright Michael Weller (Moonchildren, Loose Ends) author of the screenplays for Milos Forman’s films of Hair (1979) and Ragtime (1981).
The plot’s as convoluted as The Magic Flute and not nearly as much fun: Young doctor/poet Yuri Zhivago (Tam Mutu), about to marry Tonia (Lora Lee Gayer) in the years before the Russian Revolution, falls for Lara (Kelli Barrett), who marries the activist Pasha (Paul Alexander Nolan) to escape the grasp of the powerful but lecherous creep Komarovsky (Tom Hewitt). Across the years, through revolution, anarchy, war and exile, hunger and near death, fate keeps throwing Yuri and Lara together as their faithful spouses can only carry on.
Within the forced perspective of Michael Scott-Mitchell’s monumentalish sets — a series of arches extending to the rear, suggesting a journey back through time — the action unfolds in crib-sheet fashion. Simon, who can write lush ballads, here tends to the overwrought, with deafening accents provided by the intermittent firing of guns and cannons, of which McAnuff seems wildly enamored (possibly to encourage us to stay awake). Flag-waving, barricade-mounting protesters and a bizarre thematic set-element of chairs stuck together nod frequently, perhaps incessantly, to Les Misérables. Doctor Zhivago has all of that show’s bombast — minus the expert story-telling and skillful pop-music hooks that make the damned thing work. The tunes are unmemorable, the lyrics are generic and why is everyone speaking with British accents?
Against all this, it seems unfair to assess the stars’ performances. Few directors command spectacle as theatrically as McAnuff (remember The Who’s Tommy not to mention his extraordinary Shakespeare work at the Stratford Festival?). Here, however, it’s all bang and no seduction. These formidable chemists have come up with an unwieldy mess, daunting in scale, assaultive on the ear, humorless and resistant to any involvement on the viewer’s part in this sweeping tale of love, revolution and war. In a word, it’s stinko.
Were this a workshop presented bare-bones in a studio, it would fade silently and that would be the end of it. Instead, the $12 million-plus raised by the indomitable producer Anita Waxman and her Russian Army of investors surely will add to the growing mountain of losses as this season draws to a close, including at least $9.5 million for Honeymoon In Vegas; Sting’s The Last Ship ($15 million), Side Show ($12 million) and Holler If Ya Hear me ($10 million). That’s about $60 million worth of rotten eggs.