First Nighter: 'Doctor Zhivago' Caught at Musical Malpractice

04/21/2015 09:02 pm ET | Updated Jun 21, 2015

The importance of being earnest was important to Oscar Wilde. In other theatrical endeavors, earnestness can be not only uninvolving but crippling. And perhaps the best compliment that can be paid the Michael Weller-Lucy Simon-Michael Korie-Amy Powers tuner tune-up of Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago is that it's earnest -- two hours and 40 minutes of tireless earnestness.

It's never a good idea to say outright that musicalizing something is a bad idea. We learned that, or should have, at least 60 years ago after Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe refused to believe it was a bad idea to turn George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion and realized My Fair Lady. Nevertheless, making song and some dance of the '50s bestseller about love in the time of pre-, during- and post-revolutionary Russia comes very close to a bad -- or certainly unworkable -- idea.

If it is actually an okay idea, it needs to be done by other than the already mentioned and by other than the battalion of producers who poured good money into the stunningly weighty Michael Scott Mitchell sets, Paul Tazewell's period costumes, Sean Nieuwenhuis projections, Howell Binkley's extensive lighting and SCK Sound Design sound. All of it, directed without his usual confident slickness by Des McAnuff and choreographed -- during the few patches when dancing or movement is needed -- by Kelly Devine.

The industriousness expended by all those creators has been, it's a true pity to relate, in the service of a Wikipedia go at Pasternak's brilliant, if occasionally turgid, take on the physician-poet Yuri Zhivago (Tam Mutu, Jonah Halperin when young), heir to a lost fortune, who marries childhood sweetheart Tonia Gromeko (Lora Lee Gayer, Ava-Riley Miles when young) but strays from her during the plot's sturming and dranging with poverty-stricken Lara Guishar (Kelli Barrett, Sophia Gennusa when young). Adding to the rigmarole, poor Lara has married activist revolutionary/eventual-dictatorial-general Pasha Antipov, also known as Strelnikov (Paul Alexander Nolan) after she's been abused for years by manipulative Viktor Komarovsky (Tom Hewitt).

Yes, it's a couple mouthfuls of love story -- almost an addendum to Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace -- that plays out as the Russian whites and red populations switch power and those newly empowered fight viciously among themselves for supremacy, while the dispossessed masses try to make sustainable lives for themselves. Battles rage, conflagrations torture the sky, explosions split the air, rifles spit, hangings hold sway, all courtesy of special effects designer Greg Meeh, fight director Steve Rankin and aerial effects designer Paul Rubin.

Through it all, there's the singing about everything, which means songs about pledging love to another alternating with anthems about pledging allegiance to one cause or another. So first let's have some encouraging comments about the high quality of the singing. Mutu -- who looks enough like Omar Sharif (the star of David Lean's 1965 movie version) to pass for his younger brother -- has a rich baritone he puts to good use. Barrett -- who's blond but doesn't look much like Julie Christie (Lean's other star)--has a clear soprano she also employs well. Actually, the singing by everyone--certainly by Gayer, Nolan and Hewitt -- is at a praise-worthy level.

The catch is that as persuasive as they sound, they'd fare better were they given persuasive songs to sing. Instead, Simon's melodies are unrelentingly derivative. More than anything, they give the impression of being one extremely long song written for Les Miserables that was never used but has now been chopped up to stand as this man-the-barricades score. Almost every time a song begins, the effect is déjà vu all over again. "Forward March" turns into an athletic number for fiery Pasha and mates, and that's a boost.

There is one unsurprising exception to the numbing sameness. Maurice Jarre's "Lara's Theme," from the film and otherwise tagged "Somewhere, My Love," thanks to the added Paul Francis Webster lyric may not be the greatest movie song ever, but it registers. Oddly, it's delivered by a roomful of army nurses(!). (The marvelous Danny Troob did the best he could with the many martial arrangements. His work has been supplemented by Steve Margoshes, Ned Ginsburg, Louis King and David Siegel. Yes, lots of melodic lines needing elaboration.)

Perhaps worse even than the music are the Michael Korie-Amy Powers lyrics. (Korie did the outstanding Grey Gardens lyrics and more recently had the luck to be fired from Finding Neverland by Harvey Weinstein; Powers collaborated with Andrew Lloyd Webber on Sunset Boulevard.)

But it's one thing to string together words to go with titles like "Blood on the Snow" and "Ashes and Tears." It's one thing never to rise above the mundane in ballads. A late one has Yuri and Lara assuring each other that they're living "on the edge of time." It's quite another thing, though, that many of these lyrics are written to be boomed by a man the script identifies as a poet whom the Russian people cherish. You'd think he was a latter day Alexander Pushkin from the way they carry on and from the way Strelnikov torments him for being a member of the bourgeoisie. If what he intones to and with Lara are intended to be demonstrations of his skill at a poetic phrase, who's kidding whom?

Before the lights go down at the Doctor Zhivago start, the tall, dark Broadway Theatre curtains are parted maybe six or eight feet. Filling the space between them is a compilation of grey chairs piled chaotically high. As the musical progresses, more grey chairs accumulate. A curtain of chairs opens the second act. Soldiers lie behind chairs before rushing into battle.

For a while, I wondered about the reasoning behind designer Mitchell's chair motif. When the Les Miserables connection connected, the reason came to me. It's the songwriters' homage to Les Miserables and the song "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables." Nice of the production to acknowledge the Claude-Michel Schonberg-Alain Boublil-Herbert Kretzmer influence.

Incidentally, I read Doctor Zhivago in 1958 when it was published by Pantheon. Max Hayward did the English translation, but Yuri Zhivago's poems, collected at the end of the novel, were translated by Bernard Guilbert Guerney. To give Pasternak the grateful homage he doesn't receive care of the musical, here are lines from a poem that the good doctor surely composed when thinking of about Lara:

"It is as if your image
Were being etched forever
With burin and strong acid
Upon my very heart."