Posted by: jkirkby8712 | May 27, 2011

Thursday, 26th May 2011 – an historical novel brought to the stage

It was expensive as most theatre tickets are these days,  but I guess you could call it my annual visit to a live musical production – and this time, with my two lovely daughters, we went to Her Majesty’s Theatre in Exhibition Street, Melbourne to see ‘Dr Zhivago’ [the musical].

Based on the 1957 novel written by Boris Pasternak, tonight’s performance featured the music of that great modern US composer Lucy Simon,  lyrics by Michael Korie and Amy Powers, and starred Anthony Warlow and  Lucy Maunder in the lead roles of Dr Zhivago and Lara.  It follows part of the life of Yuri Zhivago (Anthony Warlow), a doctor and poet raised in a wealthy family after the collapse of his own and married to the daughter of the house, Tonia (Taneel Van Zyl). After a couple of chance meetings, the feisty Lara (Lucy Maunder) captures Yuri’s poetic heart and their troubled love story plays out against the bloodstained backdrops of World War I and the Russian Revolution.  Dr Zhivago, a man divided against himself – described by one writer as on the one hand, a dedicated husband, father and healer, on the other, a poet, dreamer and sensualist.

The novel is quite a lengthy one – which admittedly I’ve not read [yet] –  but I had seen the movie version on a number of occasions, so was familiar with the storyline. That film is probably the most famous adaptation of the story, and featured Omar Sharif as Zhivago, and Julie Christie as Lara. The movie won five Oscars, and is generally regarded as a classic popular film –  it’s attraction aided by the musical score of Maurice Jarre, in particular, the popular ‘Lara’s Theme’ As an odd aside, I recall the movie being screened on a regular basis of an Australia Day weekend at the Inverloch drive-in theatre – a beachside town where I attended a number of summer camps at that time each year with a church group I was involved with in my ‘younger days’. I’m sure I saw that film two or three times at that location!

 I was quite amazed at the compact manner in which such a lengthy story [as the novel is] could be presented over a period of  two and half hours [though of course, that is what has to happen in most such cases]. For example, one reviewer described this as creating  ‘some shaky elements, including pacing in the first act, simplification of politics and the rapid-fire ending’.  Not to be unexpected, under the circumstances!  My two daughters were [can I almost say surprisingly] impressed by the show – certainly Susan, who after the performance, promptly purchased a copy of the novel!

I must admit, I loved the method of scene changes, which happened quickly and at regular intervals – necessary because of the rapid pace at which the story was told –  with the actors themselves basically incorporating the changing time zones and background environment with the action of the moment. Added to that,  the technology of incorporating background black and white images, the projection of  scenes from the time of the story [World War I/Russian Revolution, etc] onto the backdrop of the stage settings, worked very well, ranging from the splendour and richness of the aristocracy, to grim and smokey visions of war and battlefield scenes.  This depiction was well balanced with many wonderful songs, ranging from ballads, quiet love songs to jaunty and rollicking chorus numbers, things just kept moving alone so rapidly – at times, you were thrown into a later era before you realised what had happened.

As would expected. Lucy Simon’s music was brilliant, all of it composed for the production, which had it’s world premier in Sydney back in February, with Melbourne the second ‘port of call’. In an article wriiten in ‘Limelight Magazine’ earlier this year, composer Lucy Simon stated that she had always had Anthony Warlow in mind for the role of Yuri Zhivago, after seeing him as Archibald Craven  in the 1995 Australian production of ’TheSecretGarden’  With that particular publication, I was lucky enough to receive a sample preview from the ABC,  prior to the show opening in Sydney, which featured two of the duets by Warlow and Maunder – one song in particular called ‘Now’, was beautiful, but I hadn’t realised the context of it in the show, until seeing it tonight.  Zhivago and Lucy have not revealed their developing feelings for each other, but this song arises from the contents of a letter they find in the uniform of a soldier who has just died after they tried to save him [as doctor and nurse, respectively, at that stage of the story] – a letter to the soldier’s ‘sweetheart’ back home, to whom he had never got the opportunity to relate how he felt.   Zhivago and Lara read [sing] this letter in parts, until eventually the words become their own to each other – a beautiful moment in the production.  I have just watched a video [about six times] of these two singing in rehearsal, and the passion and obvious love of what they are doing [singing] is just so revealing, and so  beautiful to watch and listen to!

Some of the lyrics [though not in any particular order] include:

I’m lying in this tent, and there’s not much light,

And I cannot write for long,

But these words I’ve never said, keep haunting me,

And I know they can’t be wrong.

And I’m still a little shy to speak my mind

But the truth just won’t stay down,

And here in the night, there’s no wrong and no right,

There is only the doubt,

I’m alone with my heart

But now, I need to tell you now,

I need to tell you how you make me feel.

And I don’t know if you’ll ever feel this way,

But I have to say what I have to say,

And I need to tell you now.

I love you, and I need to tell you, now!

The only time is now,

The time I need to tell you how you make me feel,

There may not ever be another day.

But I know my life can’t end this way,

I need to tell you now!

I love you, and I need to tell you, now!


Looking at the show from another perspective, but one which to some degree, complements my views above, a Sydney reviewer [Rebecca Whitton] wrote back in February that:-

‘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’.

There is so much one could write about this production, and no doubt, in the weeks ahead, once I obtain a copy of the Australian cast recording CD, it will be getting good airplay on my radio programs.

Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Des McAnuff, Lucy Maunder, Anthony Warlow, Lucy Simon Photo: Shane O’Connor

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