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A CurtainUp Review
Encores! Does Zorba!
By Elyse Sommer
Chicago was, of course a ground breaker for Encores! It established the custom of putting the superb Encores! orchestra right on stage. It also tended to build expectations for having the brief run lead to a Broadway . Though other transfers have come about, nothing has had the durability of Chicago which has been running over a decade and promises to keep going with a steady stream of new (and returning) cast of Velmas, Roxies, Billy Flynns, Mama Mortons to keep things lively.
The concert adaptation of Zorba! reflects the way these Broadway ambitions have just about eliminated impromptu feel of scripts-in-hand performances, fairly bare bones look. Designer Anna Louizos cleverly uses a curtain with its top half evoking the Mediterranean sea to front the orchestra positioned behind a stone wall. This leaves the downstage playing area free for lots of Josh Rodes' lively choreography.
Despite the handsome staging, it's unlikely that this musical is likely to be as much of nonstop pleasure or engage your emotions as fully as the tippy-top tier shows in the K&E canon. That's not to say that Zorba! was ever a flop. It had two successful (more than 300 performances each) productions, the first with seasoned musical theater veteran Hershel Bernardi and the second with Anthony Quinn, the iconic Zorba of the movie based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis.
Like much of these iconic musical collaborators' work Zorba! has an intriguing blend of optimism and darkness, as evident in the breakout opener, "Life Is." And while not quite as rich in what's come to be known as ear worms (See Curtainup's recently posted feature on that subject), Kander's score is a wonderful blending of Broadway sophistication with Greek folk music. But the book and the characters are hopelessly dated, though some might see it all as a metaphor for the hopeless state of today's Greek's economy
The main problem with John Weidman's adaptation and this whole production is that it tries too hard to deal in an interesting way with the Anthony Quinn factor. While Hershel Bernardi, the first Zorba, knew how to belt out a tune, the 1983 revival's producers decided that Anthony Quinn had enough of the right stuff to recreate his mesmerizing movie role even though he wasn't a singer. And Quinn, like Rex Harrison and Yul Brynner, proved that with enough charisma, a silky tenor or resonant baritone wasn't necessary. He handled those Greek dances with natural grace. Certainly, you can't accuse John Turturro not bringing enthusiasm and zest to his Zorba. However, no amount of joyful enthusiasm compensates the shortcomings of his singing or dancing.
Turturro IS a fine stage and screen actor and he does bring He out the humor of the text portions. The effort to make this Zorba! fresh and interesting extends to another top drawer actress but non-singer, Zoe Wanamaker in a leading role. As Wanamaker's mother-in-law to Jeremy Piven's daughter has kept me watching the floundering Mr. Selfridge , her zany landlady Hortense almost makes a case for this casting maneuver. She's definitely an asset to this production. Her "No Boom Boom" is delicious and "Happy Birthday" the closest this production comes to being thrilling. Marin Mazzie who plays the Leader, often surrounded by a large chorus, is a welcome presence mainly because she brings a magnificent, big belting voice to everything, starting with the theme setting "Life Is."
Elizabeth A. Davis and Santino Fontana who like the second couple in Cabaret have a brief but doomed romance are also genuine musical theater performers. Fontana's character is better developed though he does seem to stand around too much and why oh why, hasn't director Walter Bobbie kept him in that same 3-piece brown suit and tie except for his one night with the young widow. My quibble aside, their "The Butterfly" and morning after "Why Can't I Speak/That's a Beginning" (with Mazzie joining in from the upper level) are highlights of the two hours and ten minutes.
As is true with all Encores! productions, the full orchestra brings out the very best in the music.