Jessica Burrows and Ivan Hernandezin Zhivago
(Photo © Kevin Berne)
Jessica Burrows and Ivan Hernandez
in Zhivago
(Photo © Kevin Berne)
The La Jolla Playhouse and its artistic director, Des McAnuff, are no strangers to musicals adapted from great literature. Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn was transformed into the highly successful Big River at the theater; more recently and less successfully, McAnuff helmed the musical version of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Now comes La Jolla's world premiere production of Zhivago.

Playwright Michael Weller and his collaborators, composer Lucy Simon and lyricists Amy Powers and Michael Korie, have crammed almost of all Boris Pasternak's epic novel into a tight, two and a half hour show. The score needs polishing and the characterizations need fleshing out, but McAnuff works his usual stage magic. His busy yet fluid direction is always engaging.

A very talented cast led by Ivan Hernandez, Jessica Burrows, and Matt Bogart gives its all to the show. The performers' voices sell the score as if every note were solid gold, and their acting adds depth to the characters where Weller's script draws outlines. As Yuri, a.k.a. Dr. Zhivago, Hernandez anchors the production; he's a romantic leading man and a poetic hero. As Lara, Burrows is beautiful and dreamy yet also forceful and resilient, thoroughly believable as the love/lust object of three very different men. (The quartet "Love Finds You" is a showstopper, and Burrows is heartbreaking in her performance of "When the Music Played," a wedding-night confession to her virgin groom.) Bogart is magnetic and commanding as Pasha/Strelnikov; this role has all of the musical's fiery, impassioned speeches and songs, including "Peace, Bread and Land" and "No Mercy at All," and he delivers them strikingly. Strong support is given by Tom Hewitt as the villainous, smitten Komarovsky and Rena Strober as Yuri's stalwart wife, Tonya.

Zhivago would be more effective if these excellent performers had better songs to sing. Simon's music is fairly generic; except for the lively, Russian flavored "It's a Godsend," it could fit into any plot, any place, any time. The lyrics don't quite match the poetic yearnings of the title character, though there are a few lovely ballads such as "Watch the Moon," "Now," and the major delight of the score, "On the Edge of Time"; Powers and Korie fare better with the group numbers, addressing the brutality and futility of war in "Forward March for the Tsar" and in a satirical jab at the Revolution's uneven-handed comradeship, "In the Perfect World." Unfortunately, some of the score (as well as McAnuff's staging and the choreography of Sergio Trujillo) seems vaguely reminiscent of other musicals: "Blood on the Snow" brings back memories of "One More Day" from Les Misérables, while "It Comes as No Surprise," a duet for Zhivago's wife and mistress, recalls "I Know Him So Well" from Chess.

McAnuff has assembled a stellar technical staff to bring this sprawling work to the stage. Howell Binkley's lighting greatly enhances the mood throughout, and David C. Woolard's costumes span the social strata from peasant to bourgeois, from military to revolutionary. Steven Canyon Kennedy's sound design is pitch perfect. On the downside, Heidi Ettinger's scenic design -- full of steel girders and columns, spiral staircases, trap doors, flying bridges, and walkways -- harks back to other shows while doing little to evoke Russian opulence.

Even with its flaws, Zhivago hits some emotional high notes, as when Yuri and Lara finally consummate their longtime passion for each other. Also stirring is the finale, with Lara and her love child at Yuri's grave. In these and other moments, audiences will be very glad they came to see the show.