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`Zhivago's' heart beats faster with some songs

May 27, 2006|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

LA JOLLA — History marches double-time in the new "Zhivago" -- as well it should. This new musical epic takes on the daunting task of dramatizing a mammoth 1955 novel by Boris Pasternak, whose courageous critique of life under Soviet Communism won him the Nobel Prize.

Of course, most people know the book, "Doctor Zhivago," through David Lean's Oscar-winning 1965 blockbuster, which surely must be one of the longest motion pictures ever made. At least that's how it feels in the expanded DVD version, which begins with a superfluous preface -- a meditation by star Omar Sharif on the timelessness of the tale -- before the film's orchestral overture. One would think that with a war, a revolution, the Communist stranglehold and a somber love story to cover, there wouldn't be time for such dillydallying.

Let's be grateful, then, to director Des McAnuff and his creative team for keeping their version moving at a breathless clip. "Zhivago," which had its world premiere Wednesday at La Jolla Playhouse, may be dizzying, but it's never tedious. How could it be, when every throbbing minute someone's getting married, born, overthrown or blown up?

Needless to say, the show packs in more than can be digested in 2 1/2 hours. Fat novels onstage rarely work, and this one is no exception. Still, you have to acknowledge the seriousness and ambition of the undertaking. Any musical that features such song titles as "Peace, Bread and Land" and "Blood in the Snow" is clearly at a remove from the pervasive frivolousness of our "Mamma Mia!" moment. On the other hand, perhaps it's a throwback to "Les Miserables" and the Andrew Lloyd Weber mind-set that refuses to concede its elephantine days are over.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday May 29, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Andrew Lloyd Webber: The composer's last name was misspelled as Weber in a review of the musical "Zhivago" in Saturday's Calendar.

The problem (unfortunately, a big one) is that the musical's grand scale makes it difficult to connect to what lies at its sentimental heart -- the fate of two lovers whose relationship reflects the tragic vicissitudes of their motherland. It's not that the couple's on-again, off-again affair isn't told with sufficient clarity. But it's hard to settle into a schmaltzy romance when you're being wrenched into carnage-strewn battlefields one minute, secret detention cells the next -- and none with more than a pencil sketch's credibility.

The summary-defying saga revolves around Yurii Andreyevich Zhivago (Ivan Hernandez), an aristocratic poet and doctor with an orphaned look in his eye that makes him even more irresistible. Though married to Tonya (Rena Strober), he falls in love with Lara (Jessica Burrows), a ravishing beauty who has just tied the knot with an emerging leader of the revolutionary movement named Pasha (Matt Bogart). In addition to sharing a justifiable (if too complicated to explain) resentment toward Viktor Komarovsky (Tom Hewitt), Yurii and Lara are helplessly drawn to each other in a way that typically spells doom in fiction.

Successfully unfolding this intimate plot against the backdrop of the Soviet Union's difficult birth is no easy feat. Film can freely alternate between close-up and epic sweep. Theater, on the other hand, has to work harder to do the same, coordinating song, speech and dance into a coherent vision. "Zhivago" hasn't yet found the necessary synergy.

At times, Lucy Simon's smooth if generic music swells to keep pace with Michael Weller's hyperactive book, while Michael Korie and Amy Powers' lyrics try to inject a grittier realism than the sleek modern staging (a series of metallic archways) knows what to do with.

The show often seems to have been created by a committee of different sensibilities, each responding in its own way to the profuse variety of Pasternak's text. But the production is far from a train wreck. Through the force of McAnuff's assured direction, the story gets told in a brisk, occasionally engaging manner. Still, it rarely, if ever, packs an emotional wallop.

There's one number in which everything briefly comes together. The song is called "Now," and it takes place on the front lines during World War I in a medical tent where Yurii is performing surgery with Lara acting as his nurse. A young soldier they had saved once before returns, this time mortally wounded. But before he dies, he hands them a letter he wants delivered to the girl he loves. Yurii and Lara sing the contents to each other, the words urging them to express what's in their hearts while there's still a chance.

McAnuff wisely gives this exchange its due, not rushing us into one of the many geopolitical subplots or overdecorating it as he does the later "On the Edge of Time," an unrestrained love ballad punctuated by a fey snowstorm.

Hernandez and Burrows make an attractive-looking -- and -sounding -- couple, though they don't have natural chemistry. You never believe that Yurii and Lara are soul mates, but then neither actor manages to convey a sense of felt life. They're like walking diagrams, able to depict the basic points of their roles but not much help in fleshing them out.

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