“Doctor Zhivago”: Love and Love and Love in a Time of Revolution

Boris Pasternak’s novel “Dr. Zhivago” and its Oscar-winning film adaptation are love stories that also treat themes of revolution and the value of private life. The new Des McAnuff-directed musical, now open at The Broadway Theatre, boils the story down to a romantic core.

That may have seemed like a winning approach, but this over-ambitious production, with its enormous digital screens and neatly-attired cast of more than 30, never manages to pull the heartstrings quite the way you wish it did.

Much of the action is set amid the final days of Czarist Russia and World War I, but the musical uses Yurii Zhivago’s Stalin-era funeral as a framing device. From there, we journey back three decades, meeting the doctor and poet (West End star Tam Mutu, in his Broadway debut), alongside Tonia Gromeko (Lora Lee Gayer), whom he is raised with and will later marry.

The two have a dutiful union, but it’s Lara Guishar (Kelli Barrett, who has worked on Broadway in “Baby It’s You!” and “Wicked”) who ignites Zhivago’s true passions. Yurii meets Lara when she crashes his wedding—she’s come to kill the self-serving magistrate (Tom Hewitt) who has done terrible things to her over the years. Zhivago’s other rival for Lara’s affections is the political activist she eventually marries, Pasha Antipov (Paul Alexander Nolan, who last year led the cast of Broadway’s “Once”).

Mutu, a phenomenal London talent (Donmar Warehouse's “City of Angels”) is dapper enough to be convincing as a degraded aristocrat, but rugged enough to be believable risking himself to help people in the street when there’s a shoot-out. The ballads he’s given are lovely, if not particularly memorable.

Barrett keeps her soft-focus girlishness throughout, so it's hard to feel why three very different men devote their lifetimes, often at great risk to themselves, to loving and protecting her—Lara could be more compelling.

Nolan (below) is the most spitfire thing about “Zhivago,” first as the revolutionary who enjoys humiliating people, and later as the evil soldier his Pasha will become, a strongman they call “Strelnikov,” who rules by fear and hunts down Yurii and Lara even after they’ve fled Moscow. Hewitt (“The Rocky Horror Show”) seems underused as Viktor Komarovsky, the lecherous high-level functionary who always seems able to fix untenable situations.

The battle scenes and recurrent explosions are vivid, and may leave you feeling as if you’d wandered into “Les Miserables.” Lara shoots the wrong magistrate; Pasha shoots a commanding officer; a young solider is picked off as his battalion tries to advance the front line.

Most of the generic music is by Lucy Simon, who began her career performing with sister Carly—I walked in knowing “Somewhere My Love” (“Lara’s Theme”), and that’s all that was on my mind on the way out. Lyrics are by Michael Korie and Amy Powers, with a book by Michael Weller, who wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for 1981’s “Ragtime.”

The men are here to pine away for Lara, to figure out how to help her, or to avoid her so they don’t have to keep thinking about her. This “Doctor Zhivago” is about three men who love one woman, but I’m afraid they’re feeling it more than we do.

“Doctor Zhivago,” with an open-ended run at The Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway. Tickets: $42.50-$145. Call 212-239-6200.

Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn

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