Friday, July 22, 2011

If You Don't Like Musicals, This Isn't Where to Start

'A New Musical' is still the tagline Wicked pops out every now and then.
It's ironic that the majority of the libretto in a musical based on the life of a poet is hilariously bad. On Wednesday I took Anj to see Doctor Zhivago as part of her 18th birthday present. The musical itself is flawlessly directed by Des McAnuff, and the result is a charming recreation of the moving times in Russia. Although the music is lacklustre, and some of the lyrics unforgivable, the design of the show are excellent and the piece is still a good piece of entertainment.

A few factors contributed to me checking out the show. I first heard about Zhivago when the show opened with little fanfare in Sydney during February this year, and I was intrigued to hear that the show would be re-opening and making its official debut in Australia. I admit my interest was hooked by the artwork - I'm a sucker for any esoteric visual design, especially those that involve eyes casting enigmatic gazes (Alegria, Zed). The cast of Anthony Warlow and Lucy Maunder is a great combination and it's always worthwhile to see Warlow in anything. Since Glee has revived an interest in musicals, I wanted to treat Anj to something special and different for her birthday, so off we went. Since it was a matinee on a Wednesday, I wasn't expecting to see many glamorously dressed people - as it turned out, we were the only 2 people (as fas as we could see) who were 'young'. Anj proclaimed in our check in that we were "representing the under 80s". It would be more accurate to say under 40s, but that would be the truth - the musical clearly isn't attracting the same audience that Wicked drew in, which is regrettable because the huge following Wicked got I was hoping would open people up to better musicals. Then again, Brisbane never manages to get the audiences that the cultural capitals do. If you don't like musicals, or you're not sure about them, then this certainly isn't the piece to show up to and hope to enjoy.

On a whole, the musical is charming, and very effectively conjures up a nostalgic atmosphere through the transcendence of time of the political advances in Russia. Although I knew the musical was based off the very famous novel by Boris Pasternak, I haven't had a chance to read the book yet, and I decided I would watch the musical without reading a synopsis to see how well the plot is explained. [Spoilers until paragraph ends] The plot centres around the work of a doctor called Yurii Zhivago, who enters the service of the army during the first world war. There, he is the only doctor working until he is joined by the lovely Lara, and they both slowly fall in love. At the end of the war, Zhivago returns to his wife Tonia to find that Marxism and communism has spread to Moscow, and they have lost their position in society. Persecuted by the communists who discourage his science, Zhivago and his family move to a rustic village in the country. He is then taken into the communist army again, and eventually meets up with Lara after Tonia flees to Paris. From there, Zhivago and Lara live together briefly, before Zhivago sends Lara to escape Russia and he dies healing the sick back in Moscow.

Lara (Lucy Maunder) and Zhivago (Anthony Warlow) perform the ballad 'Now'. Just look at that hair line.
The cast sing perfectly well, all with a level of professionalism that balances and upholds the perfect equilibrium required in musical theatre of not compromising the vocals with the acting. None of them drench their voices with vibrato and they all can control their voices very well (unlike some actors at Wicked). I had the pleasure of hearing both Anthony Warlow and Lucy Maunder last year at the Sydney Opera House in a cracking performance of 'A Little Night Music'. Warlow, playing the titular role, needs no introduction, as he is one of Australia's best male singers, easily transitioning between baritone to tenor with a wonderful texture to his voice. Maunder's soprano range is phenomenal, portraying her character of Lara with a voice that is strong and clear, but with the ability to sound beautifully delicate in the tender moments of the score (read: non ensemble numbers). Both leading figures are wonderful actors also, and they are joined by Taneel Van Zyl who plays Tonia, Peter Carroll playing Alex, Trisha Noble as Anna, Bartholomew John as Kamarovsky, and Martin Crewes playing the antagonist (?) of Pasha. They're joined by a wonderful ensemble who are really well utilised, and when they're required on stage they swarm on it and the energy they put in is admirable. The cast sing perfectly well, all with a level of professionalism that balances and upholds the perfect equilibrium required in musical theatre of not compromising the vocals with the acting. None of them drench their voices with vibrato and they all can control their voices very well.


The downfall of this show is the score - which seems inconceivable. A musical where the only bad aspect is the music? I can count the number of female composers I know of on one hand (yes, I know there are many more female composers than 5, but the average person can't even give me one name). Lucy Simons joins the ranks of female composers along side Elena Kats-Chernin, Violaine Corradi and Kumi Tanioka, and unlike her predecessors, her score for Doctor Zhivago is pretty uneven. On a whole, the music is lovely but very pedestrian. The score seems to aim to fuse traditional Russian musical roots with the sounds of a fairytale or lullaby. The sound is distinctive, a strongly orchestrated score which evokes the patriotism and idiosyncrasies of Russia which is, sometimes imposing, but always nostalgic and regal. There are some really lovely moments, such as Zhivago and Lara's tender moment during 'Now', and the gorgeous melody and flawless cast work of 'In This House', which closes Act One. I remember liking the opening of Act Two but clearly it was quite forgettable, and likewise I remember the excellent use of harmonies and five (!) part performance during 'Love Finds You'. I remember liking 'It Comes As No Surprise', which is a duet between Zhivago's two women and is very pretty, but inexcusably tries to get away with rhyming 'wife' with 'surprise'.

Unlike modern marvels such as Passion or Parade, the lyrics are corny and are quite pandering. Michael Korie and Amy Powers work together to write the libretto, and I get the feeling that one is better than the other. If I had to sum up my initial feelings on the lyrics, I'd say they're generic, uninspired and predictable. I recall some of them being okay, others passable, but mostly they're boring and muddy. The common clich├ęs such as rhyming 'die' with 'eye', and 'you' with 'do' are cringe worthy, but the other material we end up with are throwaway lines that aren't really interesting or stimulating. Without such an important element, the songs in the show can't take you past a shallow and generic emotional journey.

The best song of the show, but I can't remember how it goes. 'In This House'
The main problem with the score is that there seems to be no differentiation between the style or instrumentation of the songs. I can appreciate the difficulty to break away from this style, because the show is a romantic epic, but every song is just about painful love. Solos that are performed are slow, luscious, moving ballads - but they're ALL sung in that fashion, and they all sound too similar. Look at a score like Sweeney Todd - 'Green Finch and Linett Bird' is sung by a soprano covering several octaves of her voice while she is accompanied by sweeping strings and pitched percussion to emulate the sound of birds, before it segues seamlessly into a tenor reprising an earlier tune while introducing 'Ah, Miss!', which leads up to re-introducing the soprano's tune and the two intertwine. Although Simon composes pretty material, the brilliance of composition is absent here, and that's because the instrumentation between the songs never changes or challenges the audience - there are always strings, some kind of bass drum, a soft piano, etc. The other two moulds encountered in the show are pretty ensemble numbers and loud ensemble numbers. The ensemble numbers are usually the faster paced material, but even then the music fails to ignite any real energy despite the cast being on fire. Sitting here right now, I can't recall any of the music with the exception of 'Now', which is available to listen to for free on the website. It's not at all bad music, but in summary it's not all that inspired or ground-breaking, catchy or memorable. I think it would be very beneficial for audiences to listen to the score and familiarise yourself with the material before you attend, but as I understand it the plans to record the score have been terminated... probably not that surprising, but worse scores have made it to print and it's a shame that the talent of the Australian cast won't be captured.

The technical aspects of this production are simply a marvel, and the creative team working on the show have an impressive range of relatively newcomers to life-long veterans - it's the best result you could get when designing a show. McAnuff has managed to retain the interest of the audience without the music by carefully balancing the other elements together. Unlike the clumsy lyrics, Michael Weller's book has some thought provoking moments and some excellent lines (one sticking in my head is when Lara laughs hollowly and says "Innocent love? I'd like to know what that feels like"). The show is centred in Michael Scott-Mitchell's sporadically furnished set, evoking a feeling of oppressiveness with a floor paten that is characterised by slanting and angular designs to manipulate the view of the set. Working in excellent conjunction, Damien Cooper's soft and evocative lighting perfectly compliments the time and set and some of the best moments of the show involve beautiful little snow flakes flashing and twinkling on stage. Teresa Negroponte's work on costumes perfectly capture the era, and Kelly Devine's choreography is very prim and proper when its utilised. The team working on sound include include the fabulous prolific Eric Stern and Danny Troob working together on arrangements and orchestrations - I remember thinking that some moments of the score sounded like a Disney fairytale, so it was no surprise when I saw that Troob wrote and conducted music for many Disney related projects. Kellie Dickerson, Ben van Tienen and Michael Waters all function perfectly in utilising the sound design and the direction of the music, and there wasn't a moment where you couldn't hear anything. Overall, I'm thrilled with the team and presentation of this musical.

The Opening of the show - I'd have a real description but I can't remember what happened here.
So on a whole, I'd give Doctor Zhivago a 3 out of 10 5. A musical without great music and with sloppy lyrics seems to be beyond repair but all the other set design elements are impeccable. Led by two fantastic singers, and backed with a wonderfully talented cast, Zhivago definitely provides entertainment. If you want to preview the show before it toddles off overseas to try and win some awards, and you enjoy musicals, definitely check it out, at the very least to sound cultured at parties or to view the always wonderful Anthony Warlow. If you don't like musicals, just forget it, you'll want to die.

Tickets for 'Doctor Zhivago ' range from $59.90 to $140.90 (plus a $5 booking fee, so make sure you get them to send the tickets to you so that it covers the postage cost), and is showing until July 31st. Book by visiting Doctor Zhivago Official Website or by calling (07) 136 246.

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