'Zorba!': Theater Review

Zorba! Production Still - H 2015
Joan Marcus

Zorba! Production Still - H 2015

Zorba the weak

John Turturro, Zoe Wanamaker and Santino Fontana head the cast of this rarely staged musical by the deluxe team of John Kander, Fred Ebb and Joseph Stein.

After Antonio Banderas demonstrated in the 2003 production of Nine that he could carry a Broadway musical with confidence, there was talk of packaging his swarthy charms in a revival of the 1968 show, Zorba. There's plenty in this underpowered seven-performance presentation to suggest why that planned production failed to materialize, even if the title has somehow acquired an exclamation mark. Like Tevye, the central character in Fiddler on the Roof, another show with a book by Joseph Stein, the protagonist here is a larger-than-life figure — an almost volcanic force of nature. But the shortcomings of a miscast John Turturro in the role are only part of the problem.

Based on the 1946 Nikos Kazantzakis novel Zorba the Greek, which spawned the popular 1964 movie of the same name starring Anthony Quinn, the show fits the mission statement of the Encores! concert series, designed to dust off neglected musicals in brief, semi-staged concert runs. Zorba features a score by composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, but it fell far short of the team's success with their more groundbreaking hit, Cabaret; likewise Stein's with Fiddler. It had a modest eight-month run the first time around, and then played a fraction longer in 1983, when the stars of the nonmusical film, Quinn and Lila Kedrova, reprised their roles on Broadway.

As zesty as it is, with its evocative Mediterranean accents, the bouzouki-flavored score is a minor entry for Kander and Ebb (currently represented on Broadway with The Visit). But it's the dated aspects of the work as drama that really hold it back, especially in this diluted concert adaptation by John Weidman.

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The life-affirming title character — with his voracious appetite for women, booze and conversation, and his fearless acknowledgement of death — is a tired archetype. And the treatment of the female characters now seems hopelessly retrograde. One nameless young widow (Elizabeth A. Davis) is tragically scorned by the villagers after emerging from her grief, while ailing French floozy Madame Hortense (Zoe Wanamaker) is sent to her deathbed, borne aloft by the illusion of a sham marriage. Stripped of any hint of gritty realism, the story becomes less elemental than simplistic.

Director Walter Bobbie set the gold standard for Encores! productions with his revival of Kander and Ebb’s Chicago, which moved to Broadway and is still running almost 20 years later. For Zorba!, Bobbie and designer Anna Louizos make the smart choice of elevating the orchestra behind a stone wall, clearing the downstage area for lots of spirited dancing. The stylized set includes a single gnarled tree and a church at the top of a rocky hill. "God made this place for goats, not men," declares Zorba as he arrives in the mining village on the island of Crete where most of the 1930s-set action takes place.

The villagers serve as a Greek chorus, headed by a black-clad woman identified as the Leader (Marin Mazzie), who spins the folkloric tale. That narrative device only half-works, but at least we get one of Ebb's more caustic lyrics as the Leader intones in her full-throated opening song, "Life is what you do while you're waiting to die; Life is how the time goes by."

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Scholarly American Niko (Santino Fontana) has inherited a disused mine in his ancestral homeland and intends to reopen it in a bid to take hold of a life that has so far remained beyond his grasp. He acquires a mentor in this goal when jack-of-all-trades Zorba steamrolls his way into the stranger's plans and takes charge of running the mine. The Greek encourages Niko to pursue the lonely widow, while their landlady, Hortense, seizes on the seductive Zorba as her last-ditch hope of nailing a husband. Volunteering to travel to pick up new equipment, Zorba blows Niko's money on a voluptuous belly dancer with sinuous moves (Sultana Taj), and the mine proves a disaster. But somehow Niko emerges from this experience at last ready to live.

Accomplished musical-theater performer Fontana (the voice of Hans in Frozen) delivers the most three-dimensional character, even if his arc is unpersuasive in Weidman’s pruned version. He sings expressively, and in his yearning duet with Davis, "The Butterfly," Niko contemplates his feelings for the widow while reflecting on his own unformed existence, waiting for release.

There's a rousing miners' anthem, and there are wistful comic numbers in which Hortense recalls her days as a youthful siren. Wanamaker is no singer, but her croaky voice and playful characterization — part simpering coquette, part broken discard — makes her an endearing presence. Her song "No Boom Boom," in which she describes singlehandedly saving Crete from destruction by using her feminine wiles to pacify admirals from England, France, Italy and Russia, has a campy appeal.

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But even when the music or the flowing horos moves of choreographer Josh Rhodes give the show a hint of body, the uninvolving story remains hokey and the characters thin. Some, like the village simpleton Mimiko (Adam Chanler-Berat); the brooding Pavli (Carlos Valdes), also in love with the widow; and his stern father Mavrodani (Robert Cuccioli), barely register.

The insurmountable issue, however, is Turturro's Zorba. Though the actor lacks the imposing physical presence required, he makes up for it to some extent with the vigor of his dramatic scenes. But he's clearly a performer going through the motions of roguish joie de vivre and virile swagger, rather than biting into the role with conviction. And whenever he pipes up in song with a voice that's feeble to put it mildly, any fire in the character's soul is instantly extinguished. If Zorba the character can't sweep us up in his ferocious embrace of life, then Zorba! the musical certainly can't either.

As is often the case when Encores! tackles minor works, the orchestra under music director Rob Berman ultimately is the star. But it's probably a sign of the material being past its expiration date that the post-intermission entr’acte — played on bouzouki, oud, bass and guitar — is the show's most captivating interlude.

Cast: John Turturro, Santino Fontana, Zoe Wanamaker, Marin Mazzie, Adam Chanler-Berat, Elizabeth A. Davis, Robert Cuccioli, Robert Montano, Carlos Valdes, Waldemar Qionones-Villanueva, Gavriel Savit, Yusef Bulos, Sean Ewing, Richard Gatta, Rommy Sandhu, Joseph J. Simeone, David Scott Purdy, James Zannelli, Evan D. Siegel, Sultana Taj
Director: Walter Bobbie
Music: John Kander
Lyrics: Fred Ebb
Book: Joseph Stein, based on the novel 'Zorba the Greek,' by Nikos Kazantzakis
Set designer: Anna Louizos
Costume designer: William Ivey Long
Lighting designer: Ken Billington
Sound designer: Scott Lehrer
Music direction: Rob Berman
Orchestrations: Don Walker
Choreographer: Josh Rhodes
Presented by New York City Center Encores!