Marx famously believed that communism was historically inevitable. But in the Russian Revolution epic Doctor Zhivago — Boris Pasternak’s 1957 novel, later an Oscar-winning film, and now a Broadway musical — fate is more interested in romance. The stage version, written by Michael Weller and directed by Des McAnuff, makes surprisingly succinct work of a multi-decade saga that staggers across half a continent, through world wars and civil strife. But be warned: Weller amplifies this melodrama’s most sentimental strains; by the end, you may be longing for a little more communism and a little less love.
We meet the titular doctor at the turn of the twentieth century. He’s an orphaned child at his father’s funeral, and his future lies in the hands of conniving lawyer Viktor Komarovsky (Tom Hewitt). Zhivago is not the only one: Komarovsky is also “protecting” a widowed seamstress across town — while exacting payment in the form of sexual favors from her young daughter, Lara.
Cut to 1914: Lara (Kelli Barrett), all grown up, bursts into a party, aiming a pistol at her longtime tormenter Komarovsky — and winning the heart of the adult Zhivago (Tam Mutu), now a doctor and poet, and newly married to his adoptive sister Tonia (Lora Lee Gayer). Tonia’s not the only obstacle to Zhivago’s affections: Lara’s engaged, too, to the hardcore Bolshevik Pasha (Paul Alexander Nolan).
In case these complications aren’t enough, it’s wartime, and everyone’s leaving for the front. But this doesn’t stop Zhivago and Lara’s love: They make eyes at each other all across Russia. (To make matters more vexed, their spouses — one long-suffering, one terrifying — keep hanging around too.)
Did you follow that? Luckily, McAnuff does, and his expert directing guides the cast through this unruly tale at a whirlwind clip. Each scene arrives briskly on its predecessor’s heels, with supertitles alerting us to jumps in time and place. Michael Scott-Mitchell’s set — vast proscenium arches, raked stage, and an enormous screen displaying sky and smoke — aptly conveys the saga’s epic scale (although the massive projections of performers’ faces and documentary-style photographs are oddly literal, too exaggerated even for this extravaganza). McAnuff’s cast, too, embraces the melodrama, with Mutu making a sympathetic, heartfelt Zhivago, and Barrett and Gayer playing up the agonies of star-crossed (er, revolution-crossed) love.
But acting and directing can’t make up for the mawkish script, which is too sprawling to achieve romantic depth and too saccharine to muster real historical substance. Michael Korie and Amy Powers’s lyrics are perfunctory at best: “Day after day, year after year/Can I resist when she is near?” warbles Zhivago, making it a little hard to swallow the idea that he’s a poet. (Korie and Powers do include the song “Somewhere My Love,” written by Maurice Jarre for David Lean’s 1965 Zhivago film.)
Pasternak’s novel, which won him the Nobel Prize for Literature, was initially banned in the USSR for its skepticism toward Bolshevik policy and its elevation of individual love over revolutionary ideals. But in oversimplified, musical-theater form, this critique comes off as straightforwardly conservative, a portrait of the noble bourgeois persecuted by stony-faced Bolshevik villains. (It’s enough to make one long for the class-conscious fervor of Les Misérables.)
“Spare me the sentimental scenes,” snaps Komarovsky at one point, impatient with Lara and Zhivago’s endless languishing. Without them, though, there wouldn’t be much of this play left.