Life’s what you do while you’re waiting to die.
That’s the opening line of Zorba!, and Your Correspondent felt the same way through the length of the show.
We here at The Jade Sphinx are consistently delighted with Encores!, which is dedicated to recreating vintage musicals that have not seen the light of day for decades. The team, led by Jack Viertel, seeks out the original book, orchestrations and choreography of vintage musicals, and the result is often nothing less than magical.
So it is a dour climax that they close the season with a revival of Zorba!, with a book by Joseph Stein (1912-2010), lyrics by Fred Ebb (1928-2004) and music by John Kander (born 1927). Zorba! was adapted from the 1952 novel Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis, and 1964 film it inspired. Zorba is about the friendship between Zorba and Nikos, a young American who has inherited an abandoned mine on Crete, and their romantic relationships with a French woman and a local widow.
The original production premiered in 1968, and was directed by Hal Prince (born 1928), garnering a Tony Award nomination for Best Musical (and losing to 1776). It ran for 305 performances, and the 1983 revival with Anthony Quinn (1915-2001) ran for 362 performances.
Well … where to begin? It is perhaps essential to confess upfront that Zorba! is filled with so many of the things that Your Correspondent finds objectionable: ethnic shtick, unpleasant peasants, religious hoo-haw, preening machismo and cheap schmaltz. Like Fiddler on the Roof and other such happy-peasant, God-it’s-great-to-be-stupid confections, I found it completely indigestible.
The conceit of Zorba is that an American waif Nikos (Santino Fontana) inherits a mine in Greece. There is he befriended by ‘man’s man’ Zorba, who teaches him the joys of living for the moment. Yes, it’s Mame on a testosterone high; but where Mame manages to be sweet, engaging, funny and emotionally involving, Zobra is merely a slog. More importantly (if we continue with Mame for a moment), unlike everyone’s favorite Auntie, no one in Zorba grows, changes, or has any significant insight by the time the curtain mercifully descends.
It is not helped that the cast – with two notable exceptions – cannot breathe life into this torpid stew. Zorba is supposed to be a manifestation of the life force, and should be played with energy, brio, panache and a touch of arrogance. Sadly John Tuturro barely registers as a presence. Add to the fact that he can neither sing in pitch or in tune, and one wonders what he is doing there. When explosives are needed, Tuturro provides only firecrackers.
Because this is a ‘Greek show,’ there has to be a ‘Greek chorus,’ that narrates the proceedings. Marin Mazzie fills that role with all the vengeful energy of one of the Greek furies; one gets the feeling that perhaps she has seen Elektra one time too many. She is a powerful presence, but after a while one feels that she is simply waiting to spit at us.
Fortunately, two cast members stand out above rest. A benediction upon Zoë Wanamaker, as Hortense, an aging seductress. Her number, No Boom Boom, is the absolute highlight of the show; and her death song, Happy Birthday, is equally energetic and delightful. At this point looking rather like Mother Riley from the old British comedies, Wanamaker is a delight to behold. She has more energy, fire and comedic zest than anyone else in the show.
A close second is Santino Fontana, as the shy intellectual Nikos. Fontana is one of the most appealing leading men currently on Broadway, with a high octane smile, a winning personality and a beautiful singing voice. Who put him in a show where he does not have a solo number?
The rest of the cast sinks rapidly from memory. Zorba! was choreographed by Josh Rhodes and directed by Walter Bobbie; these are extremely talented men, but one suspects that it would take a minor miracle to make a purse out of this sow’s ear.
Usually we leave Encores! enchanted, enriched and delighted. After seeing our ingénue murdered, our leading man bereft, the one comedic character part die only to have rapacious peasants ransack her house, let alone see workers stealing lunch from a disabled man, I went home and kicked my dog.
Oh, well. Kicking the dog is what you do while you’re waiting to die. Or something.