Dr Zhivago Feature: Taneel Van Zyl


Ben Neutze chats with Taneel Van Zyl, currently starring in Dr Zhivago as Tonia.



Taneel Van Zyl as Tonia. Photo by Kurt Sneddon When most people think of the classic novel and film version of Dr Zhivago, they are immediately swept up in the story of Zhivago and Lara. Zhivago’s wife, Tonia, seems to get pushed to the pointy end of the love triangle and to make way for the affair between the married doctor and the mysterious Lara.

The loser in any love triangle is a difficult role to play. Think of the Baroness in The Sound of Music, Ellen in Miss Saigon or Raoul in Phantom. Without great performances, these roles are in danger of becoming bland and forgettable.

So the challenge for the creative team behind the musical version of Dr Zhivago was to find a Tonia who could bring the complexity and truth of the role to life, rather than become a mere dramatic device to set up the love story between Zhivago and Lara. They found such a performer in Taneel Van Zyl.

“People ask me a lot if I feel sorry for Tonia,” she says. “I empathise with her, but I don’t feel sorry for, because I think she’s a very strong woman to have the strength of character to put her son and her family first.”

Taneel says that she is very careful to make sure that her portrayal of Tonia has a lot of strength, so that the audience can relate to and understand the choices that she makes. “If I didn’t do it that way, I have a feeling a lot of people would just say ‘yep, well I’d leave her too!’”

Working on the world premiere of such a big production is a new experience for Taneel, who says that it comes with its own challenges and rewards.

“A lot of the time when you work on a big, spectacular show, it’s already set. It’s like a manual comes out which tells you how to do the whole thing, whereas we created the manual, and it’s such a treat to be part of that process.”

During the eight-week rehearsal period, a lot of changes were made, from small edits through to a whole new song being penned for the show.

“The song ‘He’s There’ was written during the rehearsal period,” Taneel says. “It was pretty amazing to have Lucy Simon there and the lyricists, Michael Korie and Amy Powers sitting in their own little room just writing away. It’s something you just never get to see.”

Taneel Van Zyl as Tonia. Photo by Kurt Sneddon Having started performances in Brisbane last week, the show has been eliciting a great response, receiving standing ovations after every performance. But Taneel says that every city on the tour has its own character.

“Sydney was almost like a preview period for us, because it was a brand new show, there was so much that needed to be ironed out. Most shows on Broadway usually have an 8 to 10 week preview period, which we didn’t have the luxury of. But then we opened in Melbourne and it was just terrific.”

Taneel believes that what audiences are enjoying is having an epic, old-fashioned love story back on the musical stage. The Russian Revolution provides the perfect backdrop for that story, but the period costuming, designed for Russia’s freezing winters has been a bit of a mixed blessing throughout the season.

“When we were in Sydney, it was summer and we were all a bit like ‘do I really have to put that fur on?’ But by the time we got to Melbourne it was freezing, so the costumes became a bit of a Godsend.”

“Brisbane is just getting better and better and they’re just loving the show,” Taneel says. Judging from the early audience response in Brisbane, Taneel is in for another great season.

Photos By: Kurt Sneddon @ Blueprint Studios

Dr Zhivago is currently AussieTheatre.com’s Featured Show

Read Erin James’ feature article on Anthony Warlow here:
That’s Our Zhivago

Book Tickets to the show here:

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