Doctor Zhivago

Doctor ZhivagoLeft - Anthony Warlow and Lucy Maunder. Cover - The Cast. Photos - Kurt Sneddon.

Sydney audiences will already know Des McAnuff as the director of the much loved Jersey Boys. This next production of his couldn’t be more different. Dr Zhivago is an epic, extravagant Russian romance, set against the backdrop of revolution. It is in some ways closer in genre to Les Miserables, except it is the Russian Revolution and, of course, it is a romance. The production values are lavish, the direction is slick, the score is terrific and the performances are excellent. Furthermore, it provides an opportunity to see the superlative Anthony Warlow.

Dr Zhivago is based on Boris Pasternak's Pulitzer prize winning novel and was popularised through David Lean’s iconic 1965 film. Set in a period of monumental political change, it tells the story of Zhivago (Anthony Warlow) a doctor/poet torn between his good and loving wife Tonia (Taneel Van Zyl) and the strong willed beauty, Lara (Lucy Maunder) and of how Zhivago’s idealism and compassion are pitted against the brutality of the Russian Revolution and the Civil War.

Adapting a large, complex novel to the stage is difficult. There is a lot to condense into three hours: revolutions, the demise of the bourgeoisie, World War I, the Civil War, the new regime, not to mention the romantic plot. Michael Weller’s book contains no extraneous scenes or dialogue. Each scene cracks along impressively at lightning speed, deftly directed by McAnuff, nailing the key plot points and relationships in a heightened manner, very much in the style of grand opera.

Lucy Simon’s score and Michael Korie’s and Amy Powers’ lyrics are very strong and are skillfully performed by the cast. The dramatic opening number, Two Worlds, establishes the political context of the action and indicates turbulent times ahead. This is followed by Zhivago’s superb romantic solo, Who is she?, after his first encounter with Lara, marking the emotional direction of the plot. Other beautiful, romantic songs include the duet for Zhivago and his wife Tonia, Watch the Moon, performed before he heads off to war and Zhivago and Lara’s On the Edge of Time.

Lara’s husband, Pasha (Martin Crewes), together with his young revolutionary friends, offer some light relief with the energetic It's a Godsend. In a show with minimal dance routines, their brief moment of Cossack dancing is great fun and that it wasn’t developed into a more spectacular routine was, perhaps, a missed opportunity by choreographer, Kelly Devine.

Anthony Warlow is magnificent as Yuri Zhivago. He has a dazzling voice with a formidable range and every part of his range is expressive and gorgeous. Warlow is one of those performers who appears entirely different on stage. For a start he seems much bigger than he really is. On stage, his boy next door good looks transform into a persona that exudes power through a quiet dignity that is just perfect for the principled hero, Zhivago. Whilst Michael Weller’s dialogue teeters into melodrama at times (“would I ever lie to you?”), Warlow’s low-key, heroic, romantic style makes it work, albeit within the conventions of a musical.

The cast is uniformly vocally strong. The two female lead characters, Zhivago’s wife and his lover, complement each other’s performances. Taneel Van Zyl as Tonia, Zhivago’s stoic and loyal wife is an excellent match for her co-star, Lucy Maunder, who plays the beautiful, independent Lara, Zhivago’s lover. Their moving duet, It comes as no Surprise, performed when they finally meet each other, cleverly settles any uncomfortable feelings the audience might have that Zhivago just might be a cad.

Maunder’s impressive voice blends well Anthony Warlow’s, although her characterisation of Lara isn’t as strong or mesmerising as the script implies, but that may well develop over the course of the show. Martin Crewes is excellent as Lara’s zealous husband Pash, the idealist who later becomes the war criminal, Strelnikov. Bartholomew John is suitably malevolent as the despicable lawyer, Komarovsky.

Michael Scott-Mitchell’s clever, complex and ever changing set magically transforms from mansions to hovels to the eastern front. Teresa Negroponte’s costumes filled the brief but were a little too uniformly drab for such a grandiose musical. Olive and brown is perfectly suitable for peasants, soldiers and life under the new regime, but a little ermine and a burst of opulent colour in the early, bourgeois scenes might have created a better point of contrast.

McAnuff, together with composer Lucy Simon, lyricists Michael Korie and Amy Powers, and writer Michael Weller, developed Dr Zhivago over a decade and they have created a highly polished production. It is unlike any other contemporary musical currently playing. Containing no irony or black humour, it is simply about love and idealism.

based on the novel by Boris Pasternak
music by Lucy Simon | lyrics by Michael Korie and Amy Powers | book by Michael Weller

Directed by Des McAnuff

Venue: Lyric Theatre | Star City 80 Pyrmont St, Pyrmont, NSW
Dates: from 11 February, 2011
Bookings: 1300 795 267 |

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