It’s got more marches than “The Music Man,” more battle scenes than “La Forza del Destino,” and it must set a record for the number of gun shots and bomb detonations in a Broadway musical. If all that noise doesn’t inspire an immediate visit to the ear doctor, there’s the score by Michael Korie, Amy Powers and Lucy Simon that’s guaranteed to require it.
If that opening paragraph reads like an overly critical assessment of the new musical “Doctor Zhivago,” which opened Monday at the Broadway Theatre in New York, it’s nothing compared to the lack of respect someone has shown the creative team’s work. Dropped into the middle of act one is “Somewhere My Love” from the 1965 film version, a glucose-saturated theme song that is Maurice Jarre at his treacly worst. “Somewhere My Love” does have the benefit, in the context of this musical, of being relatively quiet at least.
Even by the time David Lean released his movie, the Boris Pasternak novel had begun to lose some of its prestige. The Nobel Prize committee, in reaction to the novel being banned in the Soviet Union, gave its literature award to Pasternak in 1958 despite “Doctor Zhivago” being, at its core, a politically charged potboiler. (An advertisement outside the Broadway Theatre incorrectly identifies the novel, not Pasternak, as winning the Nobel Prize.)
While screenwriter Robert Bolt eliminated some of the soap opera twists for the film, book writer Michael Weller brings back at least one of them for the musical: Lara’s revolutionary leader husband, Strelnikov (Paul Alexander Nolan), shoots himself in front of Zhivago (Tam Mutu). Since there’s a leitmotif of gun shots in this “Zhivago,” perhaps it’s appropriate to add just one more before the final curtain.
In another respect, Weller borrows from the movie, made at the height of the Cold War: Zhivago and the Gromeko family deeply mourn the execution of the tsar, because, since communists are all bad, tsars therefore must be good, making “Doctor Zhivago” the first Broadway musical aimed at old Russia’s top one percent.
I can’t hum Simon’s music in print, but let’s just say it does full justice to lyrics like “It’s a brilliant gift/Your resilient gift/For the Russian-German line/For I cannot think of any better bullet shield/As I dodge an exploding mine.” Only moments later, lyricists Korie and Powers top themselves by rhyming “army issue” with “toilet tissue.”
Before anyone gets the idea that “Doctor Zhivago” is the “Moose Murders” of musicals, the show is not fun in a so-bad-it’s-good sort of way, although Kelli Barrett’s chipper Laura offers a few moments of unintended levity. The ponderness of the material and Des McAnuff’s direction make the two hours and 45 minutes fly by with the speed of a Soviet Union train. Nothing wears out its welcome faster than bombast.
On the plus side, there’s something truly noble about Mutu, a fine singing actor who somehow manages to deliver real conviction in the face of such a score, book and leading lady. Mutu was supposed to make his Broadway debut a few seasons ago in the scuttled musical “Rebecca,” playing the Laurence Olivier role. Amazingly, in “Zhivago” he looks like Clark Gable in “Gone with the Wind,” but let’s not give a producer any ideas. One potboiler musical is quite enough.