In some of its promotional stuff, La Jolla Playhouse calls itself the place "where American theater is born." If you equate "American theater" with New York, the phrase makes sense amid the Playhouse's contributions to the multimillion-dollar Broadway machine. At home, it's a different story. Last season's final entries, Lee Blessing's tepid The Scottish Play and a lousy touring production of Much Ado About Nothing, fueled a remarkable downturn in Playhouse quality. American theater was born, all right-stillborn.
The theater's season-opening world-premiere musical Zhivago isn't as static as all that. Heidi Ettinger's set goes up and down a lot; there's a canned wolf's cry and some weird pyrotechnics in the second act; in a radical move for the Playhouse, several local actors dot the cast; and "On the Edge of Time," one of the show's 26 numbers, is a truly moving nod to romantic sentiment. I'd buy an original-cast CD in a heartbeat-such is the cadence and might behind Eric Stern's music direction and Lucy Simon's tunes.
That's about where the fascination ends. Almost without pause, this show replaces history with histrionics, gutting novelist Boris Pasternak's lush Doctor Zhivago in favor of bells, whistles and expediency. The classic book-cum-film, about surgeon-poet Yurii Zhivago's (Ivan Hernandez) affair with the woeful Lara Antipova (Jessica Burrows), takes place as the Russian Revolution sets in. That's an ideal time for a roily romantic clash-yet we have no information on the peasants and their decades-long grievances as they bravely (and loudly) battle for a poorly defined cause. Without this sweeping backstory, the couple is cast adrift, and their tale is anything but remarkable.
Ironically, a musical's integrity rests with the dialogue more than with the songs-if a book can stand as its own play, it's a worthy complement to what the composer throws at it. Check some of Michael Weller's turns of phrase-"If we stay out of sight here, no one will bother us"; "Lara is not a woman whose heart is easily swayed"; "Get me fresh bandages-not those; they've been used!"; "Is it possible I read one of your medical reports in a poetry journal in Moscow?"-and then decide if the script is anything more than an excuse for the music.
One local critic writes that the deck is stacked against this show standing up on Broadway. Without reservation, I disagree. Zhivago, in fact, is just what New York ordered-well-scrubbed, bawdy, noisy, escapist and safe, its outstretched wallet in tow. The Playhouse is all too familiar with that mentality, and the proof is as close as your phone.
When the Playhouse kindly puts you on hold, you get to hear tunes from Jersey Boys, the theater's musical hit from 2004. A runaway New York success, it's been nominated for eight Tonys, including a nod to Zhivago helmer Des McAnuff for best director of a musical. The bioplay on the work of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons is very, very good-but the Playhouse phone system has been running the same tracks since Alexander Graham Bell was, like, 3. Sometimes, it's as if the theater is hanging its artistic and PR hopes on Jersey Boys alone. Given the quality of its last three pieces, that's easy to understand.
This review is based on the opening-night performance of May 24. Zhivago runs through July 9 at the Mandell Weiss Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla. $48-$85. 858-550-1010.
Atwater has the last laugh
Cygnet Theatre Company's Atwater: Fixin' to Die is bad theater the same way Ray, Ali, Finding Neverland and The Aviator are sucky films. Just as those so-called biopics utterly lack depth, Atwater yields no fresh insight into Harvey LeRoy "Lee" Atwater, the onetime Republican National Committee chair who cemented his place in dirty-tricks politics during George H. W. Bush's 1988 presidential campaign. Everything in Robert Myers' script is either public knowledge or a byproduct of public knowledge; there's thus little left to the imagination in this rote account of Atwater, his ruthlessness and, finally, his repentance as brain cancer claimed him at age 40 in 1991.
As the central character, Jeffrey Jones bombasts his way through Rosina Reynolds' ineffectual direction, but it's not as if either party has much to work with. Myers glosses over even the potentially interesting stuff, like Atwater's relationship with his wife and family (though he does give good stage time to Lee's supposedly mean blues guitar and his friendship with B.B. King). This whole idea would have been better off if Myers had started at the end, with a terminally ill Atwater facing the music as his life metaphorically passes before his eyes. That's where the anecdotes are.
As it is, Atwater spoon-feeds everything and suggests nothing. And what with live performance's prices of admission today, that's maybe the dirtiest trick of all.
Atwater: Fixin' to Die runs through June 18 at Cygnet Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Blvd. in the College Area. $22-$26. 619-337-1525, ext. 3.
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