Boris Pasternak's 1957 novel Doctor Zhivago won its author a Nobel Prize for Literature and later spawned a lengthy (and fairly sluggish) film directed by David Lean in 1965. It took 41 years for the original material to be turned into a musical.
Written by Lucy Simon (score), Michael Weller (book), Michael Korie and Amy Powers (lyrics), it then debuted on Broadway in 2015 in a massive production led by Tam Mutu and Kelli Barrett, receiving rather cold shoulders from critics. Sunday, 1 September Doctor Zhivago saw its British premiere in the form of a concert.
Ramin Karimloo and Celinde Schoenmaker sung the leading parts of what is, at its core, a musical of epic proportions directed by Jordan Murphy. With a choir and a narrator to move the tale forward, the piece comes off as an exquisitely delivered classic melodrama. Historically, love and politics seems to be a winning combination for musical theatre and this one is no different. Yurii is torn between two women while the Russian Revolution explodes in the background.
Simon's music is triumphant and complex, tying the intricate stories into poignant numbers that hail passion as a curse as much as a blessing. But longing and burning attraction leave plenty of space for bloodshed, the fervour of warfare, and rebellion. The score explodes with the ensemble pieces, climaxing in splendidly evocative outbursts of energy here with Trinity Laban Musical Theatre's chorus.
It's easy to see how such a piece of theatre could become quite tacky with a full production, but, on this occasion and with an abridged book delivered through narration, it's a work of wonder. Karimloo's voice is warm as pictures of snow and frigid weather are painted with words around him, while Schoenmaker is perfectly stunning as Lara.
Charlie McCullagh is a fiery and impulsive Pasha, Lara's husband and a revolutionary with the Communist party. Schoenmaker's fervent presence is counterbalanced by Kelly Mathieson's Tonia, Yurii's wife and mother of his son. The songs they share are a lovely mix of tenderness and heat, with Korie and Powers' lyrics swaying between grand and accessible, only occasionally falling into something of a basic slump that's quickly resolved by the next line.
As it's a staged concert, it's hard to pinpoint Murphy's direction but, when he peeks his head around the corner of the understandable stillness of microphones and reading stands, he offers a sweet and delicate pace that highlights the melodic themes rather than imposing forceful visuals. While Doctor Zhivago mainly deals with romantic relationships and political disillusionment, it also presents a strong leitmotif that addresses the role of art and poetry during the hardships of war.
Yurii is a man of letters who's afraid not to be taken seriously as a doctor if people found out he's a beloved poet, kick-starting a series of reflections that are - relatively sadly - rushed to make way to the more pressing issues of the narrative. As presented in the UK premiere of the material, the musical is promising.
Its natural lack of staging and tangible direction strip it down from all the elements that were criticised over their Broadway run to show the bare bones of a nostalgic saga of intrigue, love, and loss. One sincerely hopes that, in case a full production is staged in London in the near future, the spirit of the concert will remain intact.