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.

It’s a diverse and interesting cast, including WAAPA prodigy Lucy Maunder, as Lara. Her presence is everything her character’s should be; always felt. But Anthony 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 Warlow as Yuri Zhivago. And that’s 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.

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.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey