What’s the funniest musical on Broadway? Contrary to critical acclaim, it’s not Something Rotten! (though it offers more than its fair share of laughs). It’s the other something rotten playing at the Broadway Theatre: Doctor Zhivago.
One can only imagine what Russian author Boris Pasternak might think of the dramatic schlock that has been made from his 1958 Nobel Prize-winning novel of the same name.
Producers describe the show as “an epic romance set during the final days of Czarist Russia, the First World War and the chaos of the Russian revolution.”
Epic, yes… epic disaster.
With a book by Michael Weller, lyrics by Michael Korie and Amy Powers, and music by Lucy Simon, the story follows physician Yurii Zhivago (Tam Mutu) throughout the country’s early 20th century political upheaving. As the nation crumbles, so does Zhivago’s marriage to Tonia Gromeko (Lara Lee Gayer) upon his meeting of the fiery Lara Guishar (Kelli Barrett), whose own husband, Pasha (Paul Alexander Nolan) wreaks havoc amid Russia’s fragile government.
The 1965 film adaptation won five Academy Awards (including Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium) so there’s no doubt that the source material offers more than its fair share of inspiration, and it’s hard to tell what may have come of it had the production been in someone else’s hands besides director Des McAnuff.
I’m pretty confident that McAnuff (two-time Tony winner for Jersey Boys and The Who’s Tommy) had a “Freaky Friday” experience with Mel Brooks, for there’s no other way to explain the over-the-top-shenanigans slathered across the stage. Actors are constantly running in and out of scenes as if the theater was on fire, shrieking and screaming the dialogue as if the audience was in Westchester.
While I’d like to have a pity party for McAnuff and team given the complexity of the material, I would rather remind readers of Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, and Cameron Mackintosh, who rather miraculously transformed Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables—another tale of revolution, love and loss—into a worldwide phenomenon. I’ll draw another misfortunate parallel in that of leading man Tam Mutu, who is a poor man’s version of the current Les Miz’s Ramin Karimloo, with neither the voice or acting chops to pull off the wildly passionate Zhivago.
As Zhivago’s wife, Lara Lee Gayer is modestly able to wrangle the unwieldy text, score and direction, but Kelli Barrett, weighted down under a wig that must have been purchased from a Ricky’s post-Halloween sale rack, is ridiculously over the top as she chews her way through Michael Scott-Mitchell’s set (which might actually help the overall aesthetic) and snaps her head in double-takes worthy of The Producers—garnering just about as many laughs from the audience. Paul Alexander Nolan as the revolutionary gone bad shows the most potential, with a spectacular voice and commanding presence, yet even he flounders under the production’s heavy-handed direction.
There are nearly 40 producers listed above the title in the playbill and I have to wonder if any of them saw Doctor Zhivago before opening night—and if they did, what sort of theatrical medicine they hoped might resurrect the production. Unfortunately, this diagnosis is terminal.