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LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Obviously this is one revival that doesn't need the addition of a trendy dark edge, shades of the current Broadway version of Oklahoma! That's not to say that those three deaths and the show's one-woman Greek chorus known as The Leader (Melissa Hart), make Zorba an operatic Greek tragedy (like Dimetos at the BTF's second stage). The tragic elements, in fact, bolster Alexis Zorba's motto that you must grab at life while you can and recognize that "every minute is a new minute; every second is a new second."
Staging any musical on the Berkshire Theatre Festival's less than spacious stage is a daunting task for a director. But James Warwick, who so skillfully mounted H.M.S. Pinafore last summer, has once again surmounted the physical challenges of the stage and also given the musical several interesting twists.
For starters, he has scaled back the large cast of the Broadway productions (the original with Hershel Barnadi, the revival with the Anthony Quinn reprising the part he so memorably portrayed on screen) to a manageable and more affordable nineteen. Thom Christopher, whose charismatic presence I still remember from Tamara, is a lusty Zorba. He makes the most of the humor which falls largely to his character and moves with the grace of a dancer. Though he has a clear, booming voice, his not being a singer becomes quickly evident when he tries to navigate the higher registers of his first solo "Top of the Hill" Conversely, Mark Edgar Stephens has rich enough voice for us overlook his somewhat bland portrayal of Niko. The voice that truly dominates the show is Melissa Hart's as The Leader. What a pleasure to listen to her and the whole cast without the hollow sound of miking!
Since the essence of the story revolves around an older man teaching a younger man about what "Life Is" (the show's theme-setting opening song) Warwick's casting of an older than usual actress as The Leader pays double dues to the wisdom passed down from one generation to another. To bring more of a sense of a new culture coming to a place still locked into old attitudes, the director has also made Niko a Boston college man instead of a Brit. A nice touch though it doesn't add much considering that the real rebel in this play is Zorba the Greek, not Niko the Greek-American.
As for the physical staging, one of the two balconies of Tim Saternow's two-level sets handily accommodates John O'Neill's excellent orchestra and also facilitates the blocking. The backdrop is a bit too much of a cardboard cutout though with the aid of Dan Kotlowitz's lighting, it does evoke the sense of the hillside houses in a Greek village at various times of day. Saternow manages to transform that basic set into a variety of scenes, including a flip-out bedroom where Zorba's romance with Hortense (Gerianne Raphael), a middle-aged former cabaret singer, plays out.
There's a distinct Fiddler On the Roof flavor to John Kander's music and Fred Ebb's lyrics and even though Zorba doesn't have a hit parade of songs you'll be humming all the way home and for days to come, the music has its its high points. The theme-setting "Life Is " represents Kander and Ebb at their best and is well worth reprising. "Goodbye Canavaro" is a delightful number for Hortense, Zorba and Niko. Also beautifully sung and quite moving is "TheButterfly" with The Leader and The Widow (Maree Johnson doing her utmost with a not particularly well developed role) on opposite balconies and Niko center stage. Having one singer on the balcony and the other on the main playing area is also most effective in depicting the Widow and Niko bridging the distance between them in "Why Can't I Speak?"
What keeps Zorba from being the great classic it should be is its book. As in Fiddler On the Roof, for which he also did the book, Joseph Stein had terrific source material in Nikos Kazantzakis' novel. However, despite several scenes of enormous dramatic impact, much of the plot is contrived. The two acts are unevenly paced, with the first too slow and the second too fast. While Mr. Warwick pulls the best possible performances from the actors, neither he or they can avoid the book's pitfalls, especially the jarring inappropriateness of the dancing that follows the suicide of young Pavil (Ramzi Khalaf).
Zorba is, like life, imperfect -- but, as its theme song would have it, life is a lot of things. And so, as Stein's other musical philosopher, Teyve, would say "To Life!"
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