Sunday, July 09, 2006

Zhivago (The SOB Review) - Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla, CA


Zhivago (The SOB Review) - Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla, CA

*1/2 (out of ****)

Last evening, the standing ovation was almost immediate upon the conclusion of Zhivago, the new Des McAnuff-helmed musical. Zhivago, of course, is an adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s sweeping Nobel Prize-winning novel “Doctor Zhivago” that is enjoying its world premiere at California’s La Jolla Playhouse. But with the applause somewhat less than thunderous, it wasn’t readily apparent if the audience had actually enjoyed the lengthy production set during Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution, or if, like me, they were merely relieved that it was finally over. I found the show very disappointing.

To be honest, I’m sure the audience really did like this tuner penned by Michael Korie (of Grey Gardens fame), Amy Powers (songwriter for recording artists ranging from Barbra Streisand to Patti LaBelle) and Lucy Simon (who wrote the music for The Secret Garden). While several melodies sounded hauntingly familiar or even somewhat borrowed, the score was by far the best thing about the show with several critical moments designed to lift and inspire. However, in a few instances, they fell as flat as the set’s revolving train car; and like that flat car, the anthems seemed like an attempt to conjure up memories of another revolutionary musical, Les Misérables, rather than imbue the audience with something truly original. Sadly, the only true moments of originality came during the “It’s a Godsend” number when, for a brief shining moment, Sergio Trujillo’s choreography was allowed to come alive.

With Heidi Ettinger’s industrial-looking set design seeming more apt for a loft apartment (or McAnuff’s Jersey Boys) than lofty Tsarist Russia, the metal framing of the stark set made it difficult for the largely scenery-chewing cast to be convincing, although David Woolard’s costume design ameliorated the predicament to some degree. Whether it was the overwrought dialogue or Cliff Notes-writing style, Michael Weller’s book seemed bent on speeding the movement along at such a dizzying pace that the full essence of each character, including Yuri Zhivago (played by Ivan Hernandez) and Lara Guishar Antipova (portrayed by Jessica Burrows), never felt fully developed or realized.

Perhaps it’s because of the hurried pace of the show that lines are nearly universally delivered staccato-style with such overexcited urgency. Instead of providing nuanced performances, the cast was reduced to the kind of overacting ordinarily reserved for high school productions. Much of the poignancy I yearned to feel from Hernandez and Burrows was all but lost even though they looked the parts, and the characters of Viktor Komarovsky (Lara’s former lover) and Pasha Antipov-cum-Strelnikov (Lara’s husband, played by Matt Bogart) became strictly one-dimensional. Bogart seemed a particularly unfortunate choice to play the ultimately heartless revolutionary -- he was far from believable in the role.

Regrettably, this production already lost many cast members, probably because the musical had been extended by the time I saw it. For example, Tom Hewitt, who had originated the role of Komarovsky, most likely departed to prepare for his upcoming lead role of Lawrence Jameson opposite Norbert Leo Butz’s Freddy Benson in the Dirty Rotten Scoundrels tour opening next month in Seattle. Unlike most theatres that include program inserts to describe which actors have been replaced for any given performance, there was no inclusion in my program, so I can’t even share who played Komarovsky (ironically, whoever he was, he gave one of the better performances).

There’s no word yet on the future of Zhivago once it concludes its run today. But if McAnuff and company are seriously contemplating a Broadway transfer, they’ll need to invigorate this show about enduring love with a newfound determination on how to better flesh out Pasternak’s leading characters and the inherent poetry they are supposed to convey. Of course, given the complexity of the source material, that may not be possible in a nearly three hour musical.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

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