Judy Kaye and Marc Kudisch (center) in Zorba
(Photo © Michael Lamont)
Judy Kaye and Marc Kudisch (center) in Zorba
(Photo © Michael Lamont)
Life hits the audience square in the face even before the show begins. In a Bouzouki parlor somewhere in Greece, entertainers mill about -- chatting in small groups, dancing, drinking, playing music, laughing, and enjoying the company of good friends. The atmosphere is easy, intimate, and so real that you can practically see the invisible smoke hanging in the air and smell the unseen food sizzling on the plates. It's a perfect milieu in which to hear the story of a lusty, vital man named Zorba.

The Leader of this large, literally Greek chorus is played by Camille Saviola, who practically steals the show with her earthy presence. This character keeps the tale of Zorba moving along and occasionally participates in the action; Saviola has a bigger-than-her-body voice that seems to come from the ground itself, so it's always a treat when she does.

Reprise! Broadway's Best is dedicated to presenting some of Broadway's lesser-known, infrequently revived musicals. Zorba, the 1968 tuner based on the famed 1946 novel Zorba, the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis, features a rousing John Kander-Fred Ebb score and a somewhat sketchy book by Joseph Stein. The influence of the previous, more familiar works of these artists -- Kander and Ebb's Cabaret (1966) and Stein's Fiddler on the Roof (1964) -- is rather obvious here. For example, Zorba exchanges the "life is a cabaret" philosophy for the mantra "life is what you do while you're waiting to die."

The show's title character is an iconic fellow who represents his people and their ability to find joy in life's most difficult situations. Although Marc Kudisch is too young in years for the role, he perfectly captures the gregarious spirit and generous soul of this lusty, carousing lover of women and of life in general. Kudisch throws himself into the part, embracing it with the same kind of open-hearted affection that Zorba shows to virtually any woman who crosses his path, yet he grounds his performance so well that he escapes caricature. He's clearly having so much fun on stage that it's impossible not to get swept up in his enjoyment.

When Zorba meets Nikos (Stan Chandler), a serious-minded young man from America, he immediately creates a job opportunity for himself: Nikos is traveling to Crete to take over an abandoned mine left to him by a member of his family, and Zorba just happens to know about mining. Once in Crete, Zorba effortlessly steals the heart of the lonely boarding house owner Hortense (the marvelous Judy Kaye), who's struggling with some unknown illness. Meanwhile, Nikos becomes smitten with the mysterious, somber Widow (Lesli Margherita), unaware that she is already loved by Pavli (Eddy Rioseco), though she doesn't return the young man's affection. When the shy Nikos finally makes his feelings known, the stage is set for tragedy.

One of the problems with the show's book is that some of the characters seem sketchily drawn. Also, Stein tends to tell the story in broad strokes. Happily, director David Lee's uniformly excellent cast works against these flaws with such confidence, ease, and commitment that they are barely noticeable in the moment. Chandler and Margherita in particular are able to make a strong effect with dialogue that is less than brilliant, and the song of frustration and longing that they share with Saviola's Leader, "Why Can't I Speak," is one of the show's highlights.

Zorba has been snipped and tightened for this production; for example, the song "Grandpa" has been cut, presumably so as not to draw more attention to Kudisch's youth. The result is a swift-moving, intermissionless, 90-minute show. Evan A. Bartoletti's simple set supports the storytelling concept of the piece. Heather Carleton's gypsy-flavored costumes are appealing, as is Dan Mojica's lively choreography, and Gerald Sternbach's musical direction is expert.