Encores! presents a concert of Kander and Ebb's musical landscape of Greek island life.
With Greece's exit from the Eurozone as a result of unsustainable debt ever more imminent, there's something darkly prescient about Zorba! This 1968 musical collaboration between the composing team of John Kander and Fred Ebb (Cabaret) and book writer Joseph Stein (Fiddler on the Roof) concerns itself with happiness and the lust for life on the Greek island of Crete, no matter one's economic circumstances. It's now receiving a jaunty and revealing concert revival from Encores! at New York City Center. While the show's titular character seems quite satisfied in his poverty, he's also more than happy to spend other people's money with reckless abandon. If only German Chancellor (and Greece's biggest creditor) Angela Merkel had spent more nights at the theater, she would have seen this crisis coming a mile off.
Zorba! is based on Nikos Kazantzakis' 1946 novel Zorba the Greek about the improbable bond between a young Greek intellectual and Zorba, a working-class miner. In 1964, Cypriot director Michael Cacoyannis turned the story into a hit movie starring Anthony Quinn (who later played Zorba in the musical's 1983 Broadway revival).
The plot begins when Zorba (John Turturro) approaches Niko (an appropriately stiff Santino Fontana) while he's waiting for the ferry to Crete. Niko has inherited a mine there, and Zorba asks for a job as foreman. "I know your trouble," Zorba tells Niko. "You think too much. I believe in grabbing at life." Something about Zorba's confidence convinces Niko to entrust him with the operation of this new business venture. Unfortunately, spendthrift Zorba quickly wastes a huge amount of Niko's capital on hookers and booze. Opa!
Along the way, the two discover passionate romances: Niko with a beautiful young widow (the heartbreakingly vulnerable Elizabeth A. Davis) and Zorba with French transplant Hortense (Zoë Wanamaker). Neither ends particularly well.
Turturro (Relatively Speaking) is charming and boisterous as Zorba, dancing about the stage in a fury. His slightly slurred sprechstimme substitutes for actual singing in most of his numbers, and that works just fine for the grizzled old miner and part-time philosopher.
Wanamaker is magnificent as Hortense, breathing fresh life into songs like "No Boom Boom" and "Happy Birthday." "He'll forget me," she nonchalantly sings about Zorba, and we can't help but believe her.
Marin Mazzie lends her powerful voice to the role of the Leader, a Calypso-like lead player who opens the show and watches over the action, gently nudging it along in a manner similar to the Emcee in Cabaret.
Zorba! pales in comparison to that Kander and Ebb masterwork; nor is it Joseph Stein's best book. Zorba! relies too heavily on a Western fetishization of Greek joie de vivre, the desire for these zesty Mediterraneans to teach us how to cast off our slavish workloads and really live. This is evidenced by the migration of the Niko character over the forms (Greek in the novel, British in the film, American in the musical). He's a surrogate for us. Zorba's concluding song, "I Am Free" (in which he sings "I have nothing/ I want nothing/ I am free"), feels like a massive false epiphany. Poverty feels like freedom when you don't actually have to live in it.
Still, the music is melodic and rich under the baton of Rob Berman, whose orchestra utilizes traditional instruments like the bouzouki and oud. The cast seems to be having a lot of fun with Josh Rhodes' rollicking choreography. In particular, the sultry Sultana Taj performs an unforgettable belly dance routine while balancing a scimitar on her head. All of this artistry shines through thanks to John Weidman, who has trimmed Stein's overlong book to a breezy two hours that rarely gets bogged down in one place.
Similarly, director Walter Bobbie gives us a pared-down, light-on-its-feet staging reminiscent of his still-running Broadway production of Kander and Ebb's Chicago (which, incidentally, started its life at Encores!). He has an incredible talent for getting to the essence of the composing team's work with minimal frills, simultaneously creating a certain amount of spectacle. While Chicago existed in a palette of mostly black and red, Zorba! is much earthier. William Ivey Long's tan and brown costumes look handsome set against the faux-stone gray of Anna Louizos' Playmobil rustic set. Occasionally, Bobbie gives us a flash of red or white through billowing scarves that evoke the opera work of Franco Zeffirelli. Nosy Greek villagers creep around the periphery of the stage, sometimes hiding out in the orchestra. Thomas Schall's stage violence gives us a brutal sense of the dangers posed by these lurkers, even as they cross themselves in justification.
The takeaway from Zorba! is not so dissimilar from that of The Visit, Kander and Ebb's new Tony-nominated musical on Broadway: Whether icy Swiss or hot-blooded Greeks, people are greedy and cruel, especially when they travel in packs. It's a dark notion for a musical, but one the composers excel at elucidating. The terrible acts committed in the name of honor and entitlement in this show will linger in your memory long after you leave the theater. Without this, Zorba! would be just another in a long line of forgettable exclamatory musicals.