Review By Brian Scott Lipton
“Life is what you do when you’re waiting to die” sings “The Leader” (a bewigged Marin Mazzie, in splendid voice) in the initial minutes of “Zorba!,” giving us the first indication that this 1968 John Kander-Fred Ebb-Joseph Stein musical is likely to be less than a feel-good affair. And indeed, two hours later, some tears have been shed, and a few laughs have been had. Still, the talented, thoughtful team at City Center Encores!, hasn’t really convinced us that “Zorba!” is a lost masterpiece, rather than a middling, muddle-headed musical.
Based on the popular novel and film, “Zorba the Greek,” the show focuses primarily on the adventures of young, buttoned-up American Niko (the likeable Santino Fontana) who comes to Crete after he inherits a mine, and who is taken under the wing of the philosophical, free-spirited, and somewhat fatalistic Zorba, played with surprising zest (as well as passable singing, and awkward dancing ability) by a very game John Turturro.
During their rather brief time on the island (evocatively evoked by scenic consultant Anna Louizos), Niko falls quickly for “The Widow” (Elizabeth A. Davis), whose mere presence seems to upset most of the community, while Zorba enters into a romance-of-sorts with Madame Hortense (the fabulous Zoe Wanamaker), a French cabaret singer who now runs a local boarding house. Neither liaison ends well, to say the least, but as Zorba rather too-cheerily points out, life goes on.
If the show thematically bears some resemblance to Kander and Ebb’s far more successful “Cabaret,” it nonetheless pales in comparison when it comes to its score. Other than the zesty “Life Is,” most of the pair’s Mediterranean mélange isn’t particularly memorable, even with Berman’s 30-piece orchestra playing as spectacularly as possible. In addition, director Walter Bobbie and choreographer Josh Rhodes try to give the large ensemble as much to do to enliven even the dreariest of numbers, but the way the stage has been divided actually hinders the effectiveness of much of the dancing.
“This is how the time goes by,” concludes the final verse of “Life Is.” Indeed, the time goes by while watching “Zorba!” sometimes pleasantly, sometimes painfully.
“Zorba!” continues at New York City Center (131 W. 55th Street) through May 10. Visit www.nycitycenter.org. for more information.
Photos: Joan Marcus