May 9, 2015

"Zorba!" Lacks the Zest It Needs to Succeed

Like so many Americans in the ‘60s, Broadway show makers were swept up in the free-spirit mania of the times and created shows with eccentric characters who thumbed their noses at the establishment, celebrated the unconventional, followed their own bliss and all those other clichés. 

Which is how we got shows like Anyone Can Whistle, A Thousand Clowns and Zorba!, the 1968 musical that is playing through Sunday as the final production in this season's Encores! series at New York City Center.

I’d never seen the show and only barely remember the movie with Anthony Quinn as the earthy Greek peasant who teaches an uptight intellectual how to let loose and enjoy life. But when a dear friend invited my husband K and me to the invited dress rehearsal that Encores! holds for family and friends, we decided to make a night of it, seeing the show and then eating dinner at Molyvos, the Greek restaurant around the corner from the theater.

Neither turned out quite as we expected.

Zorba! is set in a small tradition-bound village on the island of Crete and even though it has an Aegean-flavored score, complete with bouzouki and oud, by John Kander and Fred Ebb and its original production was directed by Hal Prince, it has often been considered a second-rate Fiddler on the Roof, perhaps because Joseph Stein wrote both books. But what it doesn’t share, at least not in this production, is Fiddler’s joyousness.

While the villagers in Fiddler sing “Be happy, be healthy, long life,” the leader of the Greek chorus in Zorba! starts that show by intoning "Life is what you do while you're waiting to die." And, indeed, there are three tragic deaths in Zorba!  

It's hard to get your toes tapping to—or feel inspired by—that. Even the original production, which starred Herschel Bernardi as Zorba and John Cunningham as his protégé, drew mixed reviews and at least both of them could sing. Which is not the case here.

Zorba is played by John Turturro, whose only familiarity with the concept of a key seems to be the one that unlocks a door. He’s not much of a dancer either, even though the character is probably best remembered for the finger-snapping, foot-stomping dance he does. And although Turturro works hard, he hasn't figured out how to replace his trademark dour demeanor with the devil-may-care brio that defines Zorba.

Santino Fontana, one of my favorite young actors, plays the protégé Niko who has come to the village to reopen a mine that his uncle left him. Fontana can certainly sing and he moves well enough too but he also seems miscast—not stiff enough in the early scenes and not spirited enough by the end.

His character’s journey isn’t helped by the choppy cuts that John Weidman has made to the book. When a major tragedy occurs in the second act, it flashes by and Niko seems no more disturbed by it than he might have been if someone had served him the wrong meal at the local taverna.

The women fare slightly better. Elizabeh A. Davis looks and sounds lovely as a young widow who catches Niko’s affection but she's required to spend most of her time onstage looking anxious. Marin Mazzie brings great voice to the role of the character who is called The Leader but is costumed so differently from everyone else and kept so much out of the main action that she seems to have wandered in from some other play.

Only Zoë Wanamaker, although no stronger a singer than Turturro, hits all the right notes as the aging local floozy Hortense who hopes that Zorba will give her the love and respectability she’s never had. It’s a sweetly winning performance.

Director Walter Bobbie has attempted a fully-realized production and it looks pretty, particularly Anna Louizos' storybook set. But I miss the old days when, except for the orchestra (still there and still sounding great) the stage was bare and the actors carried scripts and dressed in cocktail dresses or evening gowns for the women and tuxes for the men. 

That we're-just-doing-this-for-the-love-of-it approach somehow made the occasion seem all the more special. It also lessened the expectation that, after just limited rehearsal time, the performance would be as polished as those on Broadway.

As it is, this Zorba! seemed slick instead of zesty. The restaurant seemed that way too. Molyvos has been refurbished since K and I were last there. The rustic feel that called to mind a Greek tavern, has been replaced by the sleek modern look you’ll find at any midbrow hotel restaurant. 

The menu is still Greek and the food was fine but this new version of the restaurant, like this new production of Zorba!, just isn’t distinctive enough.

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