The music is in the excellent hands of Lucy ("The Secret Garden") Simon. Michael Weller's book is based on Boris Pasternak's 1955 novel, "Doctor Zhivago," which concerns the human cost of war and revolution. Michael Korie and Amy Powers are lyricists, and the incomparable Eric Stern is music director. Nine musicians smoothly perform Don Sebeskey's orchestration, everything from love ballads to rousing soldiers' choruses that resonate with other context-setting battle cries, perhaps one or two too many. "Les Miserables" and "Vagabond King" come to mind. One might carp about sound designer Steve Canyon Kennedy's overamplification of most everything, and yet, there are moments of ravishing respite, for instance the love duets between Zhivago and his wife, Tonya ("Watch the Moon"), and Zhivago and his mistress, Lara ("Now").
Simon's extraordinary outpouring of melody and her compositional expertise are remarkable. "Zhivago" is an old-fashioned musical. The song cues may be obvious, but Simon's building of musical intensity is wondrous, especially in "Love Finds You," sung by three very different spotlighted men who love Lara. Lara joins Zhivago and the others to make a quartet, and McAnuff finesses the dramatic moment by inserting the still, tacit Tonya, now abandoned, who wanders into the periphery with a lighted candle. It is among the evening's most thrilling musical numbers. Perhaps the most haunting ballad is "On the Edge of Time," sung when Zhivago and Lara are finally reunited in Yuriatin, a small town in the Urals. The ending sends those who love literature and poetry home misty.
Rumor has it that women are so smitten with Ivan Hernandez (the graduate of San Diego State University who recently scored as Joey in New York City Opera's "Most Happy Fella") that they've bought additional tickets through the end of the run. Hernandez's Zhivago is virile, sensitive and passionate, and the knockout-handsome actor has a terrific high baritone to make the heart sing. Tom Hewitt (title role in "Dracula the Musical" at the Playhouse and on Broadway) is vocally and dramatically superb as Viktor Komarovsky, who despoiled Lara when she was a teenager yet saves her when regimes collapse.
As Lara's student-revolutionary husband Pasha, who becomes the ruthless Red leader Strelnikov, Matt Bogart turns in another sterling performance, excellent vocally, marvelously touching and volatile dramatically. His motivations are absolutely clear.
Sopranos Jessica Burrows (Lara) and Rena Strober (Tonya) are fine, each noble in her own way, sometimes valiantly swimming upstream dramatically and vocally. At the end of the day (if you'll forgive the overused expression), the men play more fleshed-out characters and are the most likely Tony Award nominees should "Zhivago" go to Broadway as expected. In numerous supporting roles, the ensemble is rife with Broadway babies as well as excellent San Diego performers.
There's a handy timeline in the program for those who want to bone up on events in Russia, first at war with Germany and then torn by revolution. One who's read Pasternak's epic work and viewed David Lean's 1965 film marvels at the distillation effected by Weller. What the production cannot capture is the immensity of Russia, the claustrophobic suffering in the train from Moscow to Yuriatin. Nonetheless, Heidi Ettinger's scenic design is a marvel of beauty and stagecraft, magnificently lighted by Howell Binkley. David C. Woolard is the costume designer.
The world premiere of "Zhivago" has been extended through July 9 at the Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive on the campus of University of California, San Diego. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $52-$85, available by visiting www.lajollaplayhouse.com or calling (858) 550-1010.