A sweeping musical about a love affair set during a turbulent revolution, Doctor Zhivago has garnered many comparisons to Les Miserables. Its epic tale unravels across the lifetime of its title character who is, quite frankly, the complete package. A doctor AND a poet, he’s got the intelligence, sensitivity, social goodness, income, and good looks (many thanks to leading man Tam Mutu) to attract the attention of every sensible woman in czarist Russia, even the married ones. Lara (Kelli Barrett) first catches the good doctor’s eye when she crashes a party seeking vengeance on a childhood abuser. But the sparks fly some time later, after both are married, when they both work as medics during World War I.
Producers know full well that a large percentage of Broadway audiences are women, and caters to the romantic-minded among us quite well. Zhivago ranks among the greatest romances of all time , and judging from the Broadway production’s marketing materials (Mutu and Barrett in a wintry landscape tightly pressed against each other in luxurious turn-of-the-century garb), the show promises to do the same.
It works for a while. The chemistry between the two leads is palpable, and I felt more than a little anticipation when they finally confess their feelings for each other through a fellow soldier’s letter to his sweetheart, one of the more poignant songs in the show. But the emotional resonance of the second act falls flat. Perhaps the reason for this is its stiff, uninspired staging. For much of the show, the actors stand and sing without much else. Lucy Simon’s lush music and Amy Powers’ and Michael Korie’s poetic lyrics feel heavy and redundant when their presentation is so uninteresting. After two and a half hours, it all starts to feel the same.
Of course, there is more to this story than the romance at its center. Lara and her husband Pasha (a stand-out Paul Alexander Nolan) are socialist idealists at the forefront of the Russian Revolution, which ends the country’s involvement in WWI, but begins decades of civil strife and violent brutality. The musical quite eloquently tracks the evolution of Pasha’s radical ideals into twisted cruelty. When Pasha fires his first fatal shot, you somehow understand this is the first of many to come. Likewise, the show treats the war with surprising vividness. These are the most realistic battle wounds I’ve seen in a Broadway musical, which is equally refreshing and disturbing to see. Zhivago also deals explicitly with topics of sexual abuse, death, and suicide, the latter of which is again graphically shown on stage.
Realism has never been much at home with the musical. Honestly, what can be farther from realism than people breaking out into song every five minutes? But it is telling that a musical like Zhivago, which might otherwise be sanitized as family entertainment, is willing to tackle complicated, dark subject matter with striking vividness. It shows that the form is always finding new ways to mature and evolve.
For more info on Doctor Zhivago.
For more thoughts on the show, listen to our podcast!