“Life is what you do while you’re waiting to die / Life is how the time goes by.”
I was too young to see the movie of Zorba the Greek when it opened in 1964, nor did I see Kander and Ebb’s musicalization, which followed a few years later. The latter – revived (if that’s the word) at Encores last week – is called only Zorba. By then, no modifier was needed. Anthony Quinn’s lusty, finger-snapping image had become an icon, embedded in our collective consciousness, along with the notion that Zorba – the character and the piece – represented some kind of powerful Life Force.
What could we have been thinking?
Courtesy of Encores, we now know that Zorba is a toxic show, trafficking in the shallowest kind of ethnic stereotyping and careless, shorthand character development. As for Zorba himself, he’s nothing if not a sloganeer – virtually every line is an imagined aphorism – but what he has to offer falls far short of a cohesive or even comprehensible philosophy.
What does come through loud and clear, though, is the notion that men live by drinking, brawling, and womanizing. But don’t try to stop them! They cannot – even should not – be reined in, because to do so would emasculate the very essence of what makes Greece Greece. (Encores, by the way, followed the standard old Hollywood casting policy that any actor who looks vaguely Mediterranean will do.)
And the women? Apart from a choral Leader, who observes the action (more on her later), there are two significant female characters. One is a young widow, the other an old whore, and (spoiler alert) they both die.
It should be no surprise that in the service of this rubbish, Kander and Ebb deliver one of their weakest scores (even The Rink, a paper-thin star vehicle, at least has some pizzazz). It is a shock that Encores decided to do it.
There were a few memorable performances, at least. John Turturro has the energy and charisma you want in a Zorba, and if he’s neither singer nor dancer, he made an honorable stab at both. Zoe Wanamaker – an old pro playing an old pro – cannily milked every moment. She, too, is no singer, but she knows how to deliver a number. Santino Fontana really can sing, and he’s also a wonderfully authentic actor – his personal charm helped leaven a particularly underwritten role. All three brought emotional complexity and nuance far beyond what could reasonably be expected.
The fourth principal performer was Marin Mazzie, cast in the scene-stealing role of the Leader. She should have run away with the show, since her opening number – “Life Is” – is the only really kick-ass moment in Zorba.
Here’s how it should work – the denizens of a café attempt to define life, with several offering their opinions. Out of the blue, a mysterious woman appears, silences the group, and takes over. Even this dim video captures the energy:
Video: “Life Is” from Zorba (1969 Tony Awards)
Here, director Walter Bobbie instead re-conceptualized it as a limp chorus line, in front of which Mazzie stood, looking like a cross between Cassandra and Aldonza. Deprived of any context, the song meant nothing, and while Mazzie was vocally accomplished, she was – through no fault of hers – dramatically inert.
More generally, this production retained the high musical standard we’ve come to expect from Encores, but theatrically it was a major step backward – rudimentarily staged and unattractively designed (truly, they would have been better off with folding chairs and an otherwise empty stage). The source material is the chief offender, but Bobbie’s lazy direction ranks a close second.
Ethan Mordden, the eminent musical theatre historian, in his Open a New Window: The Broadway Musical in the 1960s, wrote about Zorba. He pulled no punches, dismissing the musical as “evil shit.” At the time, it seemed like an overstatement. Now, I’m not so sure.
I’ll add only this. Should you have an opportunity to see the show – don’t. While you’re waiting to die, you can find many more worthwhile ways to spend two-plus hours.
I was ready to leave at intermission but my friends prevailed upon me to stay. Talk about bottom-drawer Kander and Ebb!
I agree with this review point-for-point—except regarding John Turturro. I found him charmless and totally lacking in the necessary charisma. And when he sang, I wanted to stick my fingers in my ears.
Love, Eric M