Life is what you do while you’re waiting to die
Life is how the time goes by.
Life is where you wait while you’re waiting to leave
Life is where you grin and grieve
sings The Leader, a Greek chorus type narrator figure, at the beginning of New York City Center Encores’ revival of Kander and Ebb’s Zorba! The mystical effect of such an eerie character is magnified further as it is played by Marin Mazzie. This highly talented Broadway veteran richly portrays this recurring specter that comments through song on the action. With long curly hair, a rust colored flowing dress, and with her throaty voice, Ms. Mazzie is riveting.
In 1916 at a café in Greece, Niko, a young American of Greek extraction, is passing time until he sails for Crete, where he is to take possession of an old mine that he has inherited. There he meets the colorful Zorba, a gregarious older man who connives his way into a job as the manager of the mine.
The two arrive at an island village and interact with the stern inhabitants. They end up renting rooms at the house of Madame Hortense, an aged French émigré. Once a great beauty and a cabaret singer, she sets her sights on Zorba. Niko becomes romantically involved with a young widow. Tragic and violent complications ensue.
Wearing a fisherman’s cap and a pea coat, John Turturro charismatically embodies that legendary, passionate non-conformist, Zorba. Known for his many film appearances and occasional stage work, this is Mr. Turturro’s New York City debut as the lead in a musical. With a gruff, bellowing, appropriately accented voice, he grandly delivers the character’s comically wise observations as well as capturing dramatic qualities. His stage presence is commanding and he deftly dances the requisite Greek steps. Vocally he is in the mode of character singing that carries the tune. He does strain and have difficulty hitting high notes, but that does not mar this captivating performance.
Heavily rouged, dolled up with feather boas, and twirling a parasol, Zoë Wanamaker joyously glides through the show as the childlike Madame Hortense. Simultaneously humorous and heartbreaking, Ms. Wanamaker is deeply touching and memorable.
Santino Fontana winningly plays the young Niko, searching for a purpose in life. His sunny countenance, boyish charm, and excellent singing are all perfectly utilized.
Robert Cuccioli is quietly fierce as the vengeful leader of the oppressive villagers. Elizabeth A. Davis is alluring and poignant as The Widow. Adam Chanler-Berat skillfully weaves in and out as a sympathetic villager. The brilliant, diverse company also includes a belly dancer, and she performs a terrifically lively number.
New York City Center Encores! began in 1994 as a concert series, “that celebrates the rarely heard works of America’s most important composers and lyricists.” Minimal production values, and actors holding and referring to scripts were characteristic of these presentations. This current one, however, is a dazzling full-scale production.
Instrumental to its success is the thrilling direction of Walter Bobbie. Combining sensitive performances with an inspired sense of stagecraft, Mr. Bobbie creates many visually striking tableaus and images that vibrantly and emotionally realize this often funny and often painful material. These qualities are enhanced by choreographer Josh Rhodes’ wonderful and plentiful Greek dance sequences that range from euphoric to menacing.
Scenic consultant Anna Louizos’ work is enthralling before the show even begins. The stage has a vintage-looking gold picture frame surrounding it. The curtain is divided horizontally with the lower half tan, representing land and the upper half pale blue representing sea that shimmers, simulating waves. After a chorus of dancers performs, the curtain magically drops revealing the rustic Greek setting of stony buildings, with the orchestra above. Ken Billington’s expert lighting design further achieves numerous effects and dimensions.
The large ensemble is authentically outfitted in William Ivey Long’s purposeful and inspired costumes. From the peasant garb for many of the players, to Madame Hortense’s flamboyant wear, every one looks like they’re in the time and place of the story.
Music director Rob Berman leads the large Encores! Orchestra that superbly performs the complex score with all of its bombastically ethnic flavor.
Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel, Zorba The Greek, was published in 1946. The 1964 film version was hugely successful, starring Anthony Quinn in the title role, and Lila Kedrova, as Madame Hortense, who won The Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
In 1968 it was adapted into a Broadway musical Zorba! directed by Harold Prince. Fiddler on The Roof book writer Joseph Stein wrote the well-structured book (here adapted by John Weidman), Cabaret’s composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb did the score. Their work for this show typically and engagingly veers from jocular to grave, with Ebb’s witty lyrics and Kander’s recognizable resonant music.
Viewed by many audience members as overly bleak, it ran for a relatively disappointing 305 performances. In 1983, a Broadway revival with Anthony Quinn and Lila Kedrova, who won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical, recreating their screen roles, ran for 362 performances.
On all levels this compelling revival of Zorba! does justice to and rediscovers the original material.
Zorba! (May 6 – 10, 2015)
New York City Center Encores!
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.nycitycenter.org
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission