Donald Munro

Early ‘Dr. Zhivago’ closure snows on Antaramian’s parade

Fresno’s Jacqueline Antaramian, right, in “Dr. Zhivago” on Broadway.
Fresno’s Jacqueline Antaramian, right, in “Dr. Zhivago” on Broadway.

“Dr. Zhivago” closed so quickly on Broadway that Jacqueline Antaramian’s sister and parents didn’t even get a chance to see it.

Before going to New York on a reporting trip earlier this month, I arranged what all involved thought would be a happy story: see the $12 million show and interview Antaramian, a Fresno State theater graduate who has gone on to a strong career in stage, film and television, about the excitement of originating a role in a much anticipated Broadway production.

Instead, I landed smack in the middle of a traumatic week for the show. After 26 preview performances, it opened April 21 to some of the most withering reviews in recent Broadway history. (Sample headline: “Dr. Zhivago Caught at Musical Malpractice.”) Particularly damaging was a mocking review by Charles Isherwood of the New York Times, who after admitting that he didn’t like the book or the movie, asked: “Um, is it over yet?”

The Tony Awards nominating committee thoroughly snubbed the show the day I landed in New York, giving it zero nominations. (It did the same to “Finding Neverland,” another big musical.)

The day after I saw “Dr. Zhivago,” producers posted the closing notice. The last performance was Sunday, May 10. It lasted just 23 regular performances. Not a great Mother’s Day for all involved.

I caught up with Antaramian by phone on the day after closing. Understandably, her mood was still a little raw. People might think professional actors are stoic when it comes to openings and closings — it’s a job, after all — but emotions can run deep. It hurts to put so much of yourself into a project and see it crash just after takeoff.

“My heart is broken,” Antaramian said. “When it’s premature it’s just so hard. Everyone spent so much love, time, money, heart and sweat.”

Part of her sorrow stems from the way the show was treated by the New York critics, particularly the Times.

“Your job is not to kill something,” she said of a critic’s role. “It’s to critique it. To literally kill it because of your own agenda is not only unethical, it’s being bad at your job.”

In “Dr. Zhivago,” which featured music by Lucy Simon (“The Secret Garden”), lyrics by Michael Korie and Amy Powers, and direction by Des McAnuff (“Jersey Boys”), Antaramian landed a featured role as Anna Gromeko. Her character — who dies by the end of the first act — is a symbol of the naivete of the Russian aristocratic class, unable to deal with the fast-changing events of the Russian Revolution. (Antaramian joined the ensemble for the second act.)

I sat in the seventh row of the Broadway Theatre, which was a good vantage point to watch Antaramian work her craft. She has a particular ability to project a quiet dignity on stage — an elegance, a refined confidence, a sureness of structure and spirit — regardless of her character’s social class. (In the off-Broadway musical “The Immigrant,” she played a Jewish woman scraping for a living in Texas.)

Even when she’s playing someone who’s larger than life, as she did when portraying diva Maria Callas in the 2012 StageWorks Fresno production of “Master Class,” there’s a sense in Antaramian’s work of groundedness, of being caught up in character and not acting superficialities.

For “Dr. Zhivago,” her character was wealthy, and Antaramian got to wear one of the most elegant gowns in her career, designed by Paul Tazewell: a silver-gray, lavender-beaded mother-of-the-bride gown complete with a gorgeous feather headpiece.

“It’s sad I didn’t get to wear it for very many performances,” she said.

One reason she bonded with the show was that she could draw parallels between the events it depicts at the end of World War I and her own family experiences. Antaramian was born in Soviet Armenia and immigrated to the U.S. at age 3.

Many critics unfavorably compared “Dr. Zhivago” to “Les Miserables” in terms of its scope and fast-moving plot. I’m not really wearing my critic’s hat for this column because I only got to see the first act — this was also the night I was covering the closing of Janice Noga’s off-off Broadway production of “Janka.” For me, the first act had some bumps in terms of sweep of story, but Antaramian noted that some of the best songs and beautiful moments came in the second act.

She feels that the show was a victim of the New York theater elite’s grudges and anti-populism tendencies. Yes, the show had some problems, she acknowledged, but it was a great fit for audiences seeking a big, epic, unabashed romance.

“The other thing that bad reviews do is that the audience comes in with its heart half open. You can feel it. The chemistry is off-balance. The audience is sitting on its haunches waiting to see why it’s so bad.”

By the middle of the last week of performances she could sense that the tide was changing in the audience, but by then it was too late.

The Tony nomination snubs hit hard. There were categories that deserved a nod, she said, including the costumes and music.

“I can’t believe that Lucy Simon didn’t get a nod for her score,” she said. “It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s a beautiful, beautiful score.” (No cast album has yet been recorded, but Antaramian is crossing her fingers.)

Another favorite performance: Paul Nolan, playing Pasha Antipov, who she said “sang the Be-Jesus” out of his songs.

The show’s producers hoped it could hang on through May and generate positive word of mouth until June’s heavy tourist season began. But the reserve fund, which keeps the show running, was being eaten away, and the plug was pulled.

Antaramian throughout the years has balanced her stage career with TV and film roles. (Recently she did guest stints on the TV shows “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” “The Good Wife,” “Forever” and “The Mysteries of Laura,” along with the feature film “You Were Never Here” starring Sam Shepard.) For all her talent, which includes notable successes at such regional theaters as American Conservatory Theatre and the Denver Center Theatre Company, a long run in a hit Broadway show so far has eluded her.

Her sister, Fresno artist Hazel Antaramian Hofman, couldn’t change her plane tickets in time to catch the show before it closed. Their parents, Paul and Virginia, who also live in Fresno, had been hoping to see it later in the summer.

There’s a certain irony in “Dr. Zhivago’s” early closing. Antaramian had planned to take part as a guest artist in an original Armenian play that was to be produced by Fresno State’s theater department as part of the community commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.

When she got offered the role in “Dr. Zhivago” in late November, she agonized over what to do. Would it be possible to be in both projects and fly back and forth between Fresno and New York? The timing of “Dr. Zhivago’s” opening didn’t work out, though, and she reluctantly had to drop out of the university production. (The theater department scheduled “The Playboy of the Western World” in its place.)

But that’s an actor’s life. “Anything happens all the time,” she says.

Including saying goodbye so soon to a show that meant a lot to her. My bet, though, is that a big, juicy Broadway role for Antaramian is just a matter of time.

Coming next Sunday: a dressing-room interview with Fresno’s Heidi Blickenstaff, a star of the new Broadway musical “Something Rotten!”

Contact Donald Munro: dmunro@fresnobee.com, (559) 441-6373 or @donaldbeearts on Twitter.

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