Boris Lenidovich Pasternak wrote a novel. In a sense, his story is the story of Dr Zhivago: born in one world, he died in quite another. Pasternak was born almost exactly 121 years ago to the day, in what was then the Russian empire. But he died in the USSR, in 1960. He was the quintessential renaissance man, like Zhivago; though his poetry met with much wider exposure, success and acclaim. In fact, in his homeland he’s most celebrated for his poetry, even beyond his status as a novelist, not to mention translator, of Goethe and Shakespeare. He won the Nobel Prize for literature.

One can only but speculate as to how much Pasternak there is in Zhivago. It was published only a few years before he died, so it’s reasonable to think he might’ve put more than a little of himself into Yuri Z. It’s notable that, as a Jew, Pasternak refrained from any overt focus on persecution of an anti-Semitic nature: Zhivago was persecuted purely on the basis of his bourgeois position.

The trick for any adaptation of the novel, of course, is to bring at least something of the quintessential, inimitable Russian temperament to bear, while capitalising not only on the book’s strength’s, but the nostalgia many have for David Lean’s seminal film, which appeared just eight years after.

It seems to me Michael Weller’s book does great justice to personal relationships, as well as political ones. We can’t help but get a colourful picture of the impact of both the revolution and subsequent civil war. Aiding and abetting this are descriptive and poetic lyrics by Michael Korie and Amy Powers, to say nothing of a wonderfully sensitive score by Lucy Simon.

The score, unlike many, doesn’t seem to strive for hits, or predictable placements of genre songs, but goes its own way, in just telling the story helping us to get inside the characters, to walk a mile in their shoes, feeling their pain, disorientation, shock, fear, courage, resignation, anxiety, dilemmas, pain, passion, heartfelt convictions and, perhaps above all, love. It’s love that binds , drives and is the raison d’etre for all the characters, one way or another.

Danny Troob’s orchestrations are innovative: by the sound of it, he has boldly interpolated keyboards and, I think, tubular bells. Occasionally I found these sounds to be marginally intrusive but, on the whole, it all worked very well.

Damien Cooper’s lighting design captured every mood just as it ought to be; no small thing, given the vagaries of Russian history. Teresa Negroponte’s costumery was a highlight: authenticity merged with an eye for line and movement. Michael Waters sound design cut the mustard, even if some adjustments were needed in the early stages, to hunt down some muddy sentiment that obscured lyrics.

My only reservation with Michael Scott-Mitchell’s set was one or two mobile objects seemed a little less than fluid and the chequerboard floor didn’t work for all scenes, by any means. I found it distracting. Those quibbles aside, it was almost inspiring and certainly evocative.

Kellie Dickerson had it all together as musical director, though a little toning down of those chimes or bells, here and there, might be judicious; come to think, a soupcon more subtlety overall. Kelly Devine’s choreography came to the fore in numerous scenes, but perhaps none more successfully than with the mazurka, a strange dance indeed, which the cast executed with panache.

And, of course, director Des McAnuff had his work cut out and probably the greatest burden on his shoulders, alongside executive producer Mitzi Zaphir. The fact that Ant Warlow pulled a hammy which took him out for a couple of nights surely must have made him apoplectic but, according to his testimony at least, the understudy propped-up the previews splendidly.

It’s a diverse and interesting cast, that includes versatile WAAPA prodigy (yes, another one) Lucy Maunder, as Lara; rising star Taneel Van Zyl as Yuri’s wife, Tonia; Martin Crewes, as her most unworldly activist husband Pasha; Nimrod relic and treasure, actor’s actor (if not singer’s singer) Peter Carroll as Tonia’s aristocratic father, Alexander; a mature Bartholomew John as Komarovsky (who knew inside a bastard like him lurked a heart); the internationally successful Trisha Noble, as Tonia’s mother, Anna. All are fine and immensely talented performers.

Maunder’s presence is everything her character’s should be; always felt. While Van Zyl plays the hard-done-by, left to languish wife with all the quite dignity written for her. Carroll is ever-charismatic. And this is just the front line. Lurking, not always so generically, or unnoticably, are the likes of Belinda Wollaston, the young musical supertrouper and cabaret diva. And the warm, deep, dark-chocolate vocal timbre of Natalie Gamsu easily permeates and enriches the chorus.

But the fact is, as good as many of these singers are in their own right, with several better than merely good, Warlow puts them all in the shade: his clarity, diction, ease, control, sublime confidence (you know there’s bugger-all chance, if that, of any notes going awol), phrasing, power, unimpeachable pitch; his unadulterated technical perfection, emotive scope and glorious tone never fail his reputation for impeccability.

Thus, this is a musical as much, or even more, about Anthony Warlow as Yuri Zhivago. And that’s ok. It’s more than ok. Lest we forget what we can proudly claim as our own. Lucy Simon, Warlow, Zhivago, Lara and Pasternak make this show memorable, if not transcendent.

Not in a flashy, glamourous, Broadway-here-we-come kinda way, but with (interestingly and ironically enough, given its American genesis), perhaps, something of an understated, European sensibility.

Curtain Call rating: A-

The details: Doctor Zhivago is playing the Lyric Theatre, Star City — tickets through Ticketmaster. The show moves to Melbourne at Her Majesty’s Theatre from April 12 — Ticketek has tickets. A Brisbane season is also planned for the Lyric Theatre, QPAC.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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