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The band is heard but barely seen

IN terms of musicianly concentration, the pit band for the new musical “Zhivago” may not outdo the orchestra aboard the Titanic, which played on as the ship sank. But there is something to be said for mustering a cohesive performance while World War I and the Russian Revolution are being reenacted 2 feet above your head.

Director Des McAnuff’s workshop production at La Jolla Playhouse experiments with the flexibility built into the new Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre -- essentially a huge black box in which there is no permanent, elevated stage. McAnuff, the playhouse’s artistic director, buries the five-member band in trap space beneath the playing floor, preserving more room above decks for hell to break loose in Mother Russia.

Eric Stern, the show’s conductor-pianist, reports that the dark, padded room is “not at all cramped” and that most of the time, the musicians, each miked for amplified sound, can hear one another clearly as well as the actors’ miked voices. Conditions grow trickier when the action becomes hottest in composer Lucy Simon and book writer Michael Weller’s adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s epic novel, which is getting a public shakedown as part of the playhouse’s annual “Page to Stage” series.

“When actors are stomping and dancing above us, the sound is very loud, but the musicians learned rather quickly to ignore it,” Stern says.

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The only sign of the band is a plexiglass rectangle in the floor, just in front of the risers on which the audience sits. Only viewers at the very front can see through the translucent surface and make out the players, says La Jolla spokeswoman Jill McIntyre. Otherwise, the underground band manifests itself as an occasional glow emanating from the floor.

During final bows, though, “Zhivago” cast members gesture toward the lighted-up rectangle, eliciting a hand for the musicians.

-- Mike Boehm


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