The cast of Doctor Zhivago 22 (c) Kurt Sneddon

“Doctor Zhivago a new musical”- and a bold, new Australian production has launched itself in the Lyric Theatre at Star City. In the tradition of grand musicals of the early-mid 1980s such as Les Miserables (1985) and Phantom of the Opera (1986), Doctor Zhivago is the classic story of the power of passion and politics, produced by Australian John Frost OAM with Anthony Warlow at the helm in the title role. In recent weeks there has been much in the media about Warlow and a torn calf muscle – and the usual punters demanding money back/replacement tickets… and it’s been pretty comprehensive. Warlow is the darling patriarch of Australia’s Musical Theatre industry and his name attached to a project immediately makes it news worthy. Interestingly, opposite him are two fairly young rising stars of the industry – Lucy Maunder and Taneel Van Zyl. The posters, banners, taxi advertisements have been everywhere – CDs have appeared as a free bonus in magazines and with Valentine’s Day roses. It’s been everywhere and just may be one of the grandest musicals to premiere this year.

I am in the unique position (perhaps not so unique for other Gen Y theatre goers – but certainly unbelievable for older generations) of not knowing David Lean’s 1965 film (which IMDB claims grossed $111 million) or the Pulitzer prize winning novel by Boris Pasternak first published in 1957 (when Pasternak was 67 years old.) There was a slight air of surprise at this from Kevin Jackson and James Waites on the media night – and I have promised them both to watch the film. But as it appears a part of common contemporary consciousness (albeit not mine) I think it’s important that I declare my ignorance. So this response/review is mainly in the context of viewing the production as a piece of entertainment/art on it’s own terms – not in the shadow of a book or the film.

In the heat of Australia’s summer, we are transported to the Russian Revolution of 1917 – a young boy left orphaned and burden by a long established name of nobility “Zhivago”, is taken in by friends of the family. At the same time we see a young girl, Lara is forced to work as a seamstress, and taken under the wing of a much older man. Before long a few chance meetings – one involving a failed assassination by Lara of Komarovsky at Zhivago’s engagement party – triggers a curiosity in Yurii Zhivago about who this woman in the rain is. Lara marries her commrade Pasha, the head of the revolutionaries and Zhivago marries Tonia the daughter of his guardians. As the revolution descends into war, between czarist Russia and communism – Zhivago is forced against his will to tend the wounded, far from his family. Whilst working at an out-post he is sent a young volunteer nurse who is looking for her husband Pasha. Zhivago and Lara work along side each other forming a deep and irrefutable bond. When Zhivago returns home , he is confronted with his house being occupied by communist comrades and though reunited with his wife and family, he decides they must start afresh on his in-laws estate – which happens to be where Lara is living… and of course nothing is as simple as it could be – especially when love is concerned. And there is a choice to be made – between Zhivago’s wife Tonia and his love interest Lara. His wife – dutiful and beautiful and completely bourgeois, and Lara the fiesty revolutionary. Strangely I didn’t really see the fire and passion that so many of the characters in Dr Zhivago eferred to Lara as having. I saw her keep company with passionate and outspoken thinkers – but not actually do any leading or philosophizing of her own – she does nearly shoot her ex-lover – is that the passion they are referring to? Descriptions of the movie seem to place Lara at the centre of the action (even Lara’s theme is mentioned in nearly every review/preview – this one now included) – and yet this musical has the story centred firmly around Zhivago. Its where my ignorance makes me curious of this adaptation of the film and/or book.

Performances are wonderful – and no one can refute the commitment and presence of the ensemble, the cast and the star performers – it’s an incredible package.

It is irrefutable that this production is exquisite – the set by Michael Scott-Mitchell is, (as it usually is from him) grand architectural design with all the moving machinery one would expect and need for a large scale important (and possibly International) production. Lighting by Damien Cooper (as usual from him aswell) is everything you need, plus a wonderful sense of atmosphere. For me, I was most impressed by the costumes by designer Theresa Negroponte – beautiful, well thought-out and researched and delicately rendered which lifted what could be a very stale and drab subject and palate into the realm of grand love story.

Punters – those that love a love-anthem, or an epic battle scene, Russian history, or the book or film will be sure to delight in this well produced and beautifully performed production.

However, what I am most interested in, is the ideas in the musical and how the idea of revolution is being presented to contemporary audiences.

During the late 80’s/early 90’s, Les Miserables now 26 years on, had audiences singing along with Claude-Michel Schönberg’s epic anthem “Do you Hear the People Sing?” – a song catchy enough to infect any punter of any background. Large scale (cast/set/duration) musicals are a costly venue to produce and in turn, are substantially priced (Zhivago’s premium ticket is around $130) – though this is not in the realm of some Opera tickets ($250 a ticket for A reserve), this is at the pointier tip of the entertainment price structure. The people who are likely to afford this level of evening entertainment are more likely to be the bourgeois. The interesting thing about Les Miserables was the bourgeois (perhaps at that time) very open and supportive of ideas presented of the revolution. The activists were seen as romantic figures, brave and passionate – putting love and ideas above commerce, stability – a kind of romantic notion that people can change the world – and that anything is possible. The audience loved to be devastated at Éponine’s unrequitted love – she was the young gutsy revolutionary who stuck by Marius’ side, only to be thwarted by his love of Cosette from the nice side of the tracks and of course she died in the rain. Interestingly the collapse of the french monarchy lasted only three years.

By contrast the Russian Revolution had a much long lasting impact and yet the portrayal of the revolutionaries in Doctor Zhivago are delusional at best and comical at worst.
Communism is shown to be an ugly and misery philosophy strangling those who have worked hard, and earnt their status. And not to ruin this for any of you, but I am sure you already know the story anyway so I’m not spoiling the surprise for you- Doctor Zhivago leaves his lovely/dutiful/generous wife (who leaves him and seemingly takes it all quite well that he’s been having an affair) for the passionate revolutionary/fallen angel/corrupted woman (Lara) who is then saved by Komarovsky and his money… and again money/status rules supreme.

The audience cannot escape that they too are subject to the ideas of entitlement which comes with meritocracy – and that even the seating arrangements could be seen as anti-socialist. Those who pay more sit up the front of the theatre – this isn’t like say, the Stables theatre where punters purchase a ticket at the same price whether they sit up the back or up the front of the theatre. The tickets, pre-show dinner, interval champagne, the programs – the fact that this production is on in a casino – all supports the philosophy of the themes of the musical – socialism is not fun and meritocracy rules.

I wonder – is this change of emphasis/portrayal of the idea of the revolutionary versus the bourgeoisie something which echos the belief system of our wider society? Is this taming of the revolutionary a popular sentiment? Is this a politics the audience identifies with? I wonder what this reveals of our politics, our identity?