Zorba is a musical with a book by Joseph Stein, lyrics by Fred Ebb, and music by John Kander. Adapted from the 1946 novel Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis and the subsequent 1964 film of the same name, it focuses on the friendship that evolves between Zorba and Nikos, a young American who has inherited an abandoned mine on Crete, and their romantic relationships with a local widow and a French woman, respectively.
The musical premiered on Broadway in 1968 in a production directed by Harold Prince. The original production ran for 305 performances, and a 1983 Broadway revival ran for 362 performances with a cast starring Anthony Quinn.
It took only four years to bring Zorba’s affirmative antics, which seemed a nice match for the peculiarly moralistic hedonism of the 1960s, to Broadway. But as staged by Harold Prince, fresh off the success of another Kander-Ebb collaboration, “Cabaret,” the 1968 musical adaptation was said to be darker than the film, and closer in spirit to Kazantzakis’s book. It began with the forbidding lyrics, “Life is what you do while you’re waiting to die.”
Still, audiences didn’t seem to mind the morbidity; the show, starring Herschel Bernardi, was declared by The New York Times critic Clive Barnes to be better than “Cabaret,” and it ran for 305 performances. A 1983 revival, which brought in Mr. Quinn to recreate his signature film role onstage, ran even longer. But by that time, Frank Rich wrote in The Times, Zorba’s “grabby philosophy” felt tedious: “While it once seemed liberating and romantic, it now sounds juvenile.”
As if conscious of the dangers of affirming that assessment, Mr. Bobbie’s production presents itself less as a declamatory yelp than as a wistful sigh. And playing a big-hearted erotomane, who teaches an inhibited young American (a sweet-sounding Santino Fontana) to lead with his loins, Mr. Turturro (an excitingly intense presence in Coen brothers movies like “Barton Fink”) is subdued to the point of depressiveness.
Adapted for Encores! by John Weidman, the script is an episodic portrait of one man’s sentimental education. Niko (Mr. Fontana), a former schoolteacher, comes to a village in Crete to check out an old lignite mine he has inherited. En route, he is befriended by Zorba, a Yannis-of-all-trades who immediately places himself in charge of Niko’s professional and personal affairs.
Zorba immediately begins a liaison with his landlady, Hortense (a wonderfully dithery and touching Zoë Wanamaker), a fading French cocotte. Niko gravitates, more slowly, toward the village’s resident beautiful widow (a serenely anxious Elizabeth A. Davis). But in this primal world, love is conducted in the shadow of death.
That grim reality is reflected in the philosophical musings of a Greek choral leader (Marin Mazzie, wry and voluptuous), who kibitzes on the action, with her backup squad of singing townspeople, and keeps telling us, to use the show’s opening song title, what “Life Is.” So what is it?
Well, it’s “what you feel, till you can’t feel at all,” and “learning that a tear drops anywhere you go, finding it’s the mud that makes the roses grow.” Zorba makes his own repeated contributions to this general pool of wisdom.
“The future is a pig’s behind. Now is what counts,” he says. And, “Logic is a woman’s behind.” And, “The only real death is the death we die every day by not living.” At times, “Zorba!” feels like a big, heaping plate of Greek butter fortune cookies.
Such adages don’t grow in depth by being set to music. The bouzouki-accented score — played impeccably by the Encores! Orchestra, directed by Rob Berman — has little of the showstopping brassiness associated with Kander and Ebb. Though it has moments of meditative beauty (especially in a love duet for Mr. Fontana and Ms. Davis), the music tends to trickle, as if the life under such robust consideration were but a rivulet.
The show has been given the sort of handsome, full-dress production we now expect from Encores! (Remember the days when its offerings really were concerts and didn’t seem to be auditioning for a Broadway transfer?) The choreographer, Josh Rhodes, has provided ensemble numbers for the villagers that are more notable for their enthusiasm than their synchronicity.
Mr. Turturro — who plays Zorba as a wily comic manservant type, more Sancho Panza than Don Quixote — is not a natural dancer (nor singer, but then neither was Mr. Quinn). When he leaps to his feet, to show Niko how to trip the light (and dark) fantastic, it seems less like an eruption of joy than yet another of those obligations that unescapable fate demands we fulfill.
Release date: 1983
Last Update:October, 23rd 2023