It doesn't get much bigger than Doctor Zhivago. Set against the turbulent backdrop of early 20th-century Russia, Boris Pasternak's story is one of life, death, revolution, war, the changing of seasons and the changing of history. It's also a love story on a grand scale - at its heart, the passionate love affair between poet-doctor Yurii Andreievich Zhivago and Larisa Feodorovna Antipov. But how is it as a musical?
Let's answer that question with another question: do you like romantic duets? Doctor Zhivago takes us right to the frontlines with the Red Army but the principle battlefield here is Zhivago's love life. ‘Now' and ‘On the Edge of Time' (a duet between Zhivago and Lara) and ‘Watch the Moon' (a duet between Zhivago and the other love of his life, his wife Tonia) are quite beautiful songs, as long as you forgive the lifted Bee Gees melody and are prepared for such gooey lyrics as:
"You're like a song
I sing you all day long
A melody so strong and sweet and real
And I don't know if you ever feel
This way but I have to say
What I have to say:
I love you,
And I need to tell you now."
Pretty naïve stuff - tautological at best - springing from the heart of Zhivago the great poet. Take this as a friendly warning rather than a criticism: the whole affair feels less like Les Miserables, much more like Chess.
There are punchier numbers elsewhere. Anthony Warlow finally gets to shine as Zhivago in ‘A Man Who Lives Up to His Name' and ‘Ashes and Tears' (one of the few numbers driven by a strong backbeat), and the three men in love with Lara share vocal parts in the stirring ‘Love Finds You'.
The show is also not without a sense of fun: ‘It's A Godsend' is an early, rabble-rousing, vodka-swilling number for Pasha and his fellow revolutionaries; you can feel the clang of the hammer and sickle in the socialism ditty ‘The Perfect World', performed by a couple of socialist Muppets; and ‘Women and Little Children' is a catchy Act Two opener with a hint of world music about it. Musically, it's solid, even if no one number will stick with you for long afterwards.
(One thing: can they lay off the windchimes a bit? By Act Two that tinkly dreamy sound is being used for every fortuitous encounter, kiss, embrace, sunrise or moment of significant eye contact. Once you're aware of it, it's maddening.)
It's an exceptional and very hard-working cast. Lucy Maunder and Taneel Van Zyl are exquisite as Lara and Tonia, while Martin Crewes makes a meal of Pasha/Strelnikov, which may be the meatiest role in the whole show - Strelnikov's final, unmusical confrontation with Zhivago makes one wish there was more of the same. Warlow, naturally, plays Zhivago with all his considerable might, as strong and resilient as the columns that frame the stage. It's just a little sad that he's deprived of a great last number - Zhivago exits the story and dies in the most unremarkable fashion, offstage, which feels like a wasted opportunity.
You'd think it would be impossible for a new retelling to match the grandeur of the epic film or the novel before it, but this new Doctor Zhivago gives the impossible a red-hot go. It does a terrific job of doing justice to Pasternak's original, successfully condensing a couple of decades of Russian history into a couple of hours, capturing the emotional complexity of its characters - and putting some fine music to it. A tremendous achievement and a worthy new musical. Darryn King
"Does the story sing?" This is the first question, Des McAnuff explains, a director asks himself when offered a musical. In the case of Doctor Zhivago, the answer was immediately clear. "This is absolutely a story that sings," McAnuff says. "This could be an opera."
Doctor Zhivago began as a 1957 novel by Boris Pasternak and was turned into a film, starring Omar Sharif, in 1965 - currently the eighth highest grossing film in history. When he spoke to Time Out, Canadian-American director McAnuff (who also directed the recent hit Jersey Boys) was preparing to unveil the world premiere musical version in Sydney.
It's a true Russian epic - encompassing the 1905 and 1918 revolutions, the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution and the Russian Civil War. As McAnuff explains, the history has to be vividly clear - so that audiences can appreciate the love story at the centre of it all.
"At its heart, the story is about the fact that love can survive through art in the most unspeakable and unthinkably harsh times. On a very simple level, it's about five characters and we follow them across the vast Russian landscape; three men in love with one woman, Lara Gishar; and two women in love with one man, Yuri Zhivago. And that's what makes it such a theatrical journey because we have the expanse of the Russian 20th century as a backdrop but we're really following these five characters with great intimacy."
Anthony Warlow will be playing the titular doctor-poet, and the sweeping musical score will be performed by a full orchestra. McAnuff calls the score the "true masterpiece" of composer Lucy Simon. "One of the things I did with the cast when I went through the script very carefully with them all during the first several days of rehearsal, I actually described the genre of each song. I think I stopped at song eight, but one of the things that's really fresh about the score is that it doesn't repeat itself. Every song is a new musical exploration, and that's - if not unique - quite unusual with the musical. And that's taken many years of work. The score is Russian-influenced, without being self-consciously so."
Doctor Zhivago may be set in a distant place and time, but McAnuff believes that the story, music and characters will resonate powerfully with Sydney audiences, especially in light of recent events north of the border. "It puts the microscope up against the worst times imaginable and it shows how people still manage to not just survive but to spiritually and emotionally flourish. I hope people leave with tears in their eyes and hope in their hearts." Emily Cheng