By Bill Hirschman
A staged concert is a sort of promise. With minimal costumes, sets, choreography and rehearsal time, even the best productions are a promise of what might be. And from the first tinkling of the bouzouki, Palm Beach Dramaworks’ mounting of the rarely-seen Zorba! brims with that promise.
The Kander and Ebb musical was not well-received when it bowed in 1968 with Herschel Bernardi and fared the same when it was revived in 1983 with Anthony Quinn reprising the role he originated in the 1964 film, Zorba the Greek.
But maybe like the original Chicago that Kander and Ebb premiered in 1976, the timing wasn’t right. The tale of life and death in Crete was a bit too dark and existentialist for tired businessmen and their families hoping to see a kind of Fiddler on the Roof.
Seen by wiser, more chastened audiences in the 21st Century, this often exuberant Dramaworks production clearly can be seen as life-affirming in direct spite of the vagaries of Fate. This edition, helmed by Clive Cholerton and starring Broadway vet William Parry as Zorba and local Nick Duckart as his mentee Nikos, fairly throbs most of the time with an infectious zest for life.
It’s not a perfect production and the energy sometimes flags a bit. The raw material has a few problems as well, sometimes being a bit more twee than charming, as it clearly hopes to be. But most of the shortcomings in this outing are due to the restrictions of resources; it should make a perceptive and open-minded audience hungry to see what these folks could do with more time and money.
Still, Dramaworks and Cholerton have upped the ante on this fourth summer musical in three years. All have had far more extensive physical staging and movement than is typical of most staged concerts locally. But this time, the cast boasts 15 actors and dancers, significant dollops of choreography, a three-piece band, slightly more involved costuming and now a two-tiered set to accompany Dramaworks’ tradition of using evocative projections/videos as a backdrop.
Even stripped down, Dramaworks’ offering is often a passionate and pungent experience delivering a show that few audiences other than theater geeks know well.
The evening opens in the 1930s in a Greek tavern where friends are drinking, singing, dancing and inevitably begin to tell stories under the musical tutelage of a narrator known as The Leader (the clarion-voiced Laura Hodos). The entire community takes parts in the story much as the prisoners did in Man of La Mancha, forming a true Greek chorus.
The story swirls around Alexis Zorba, a 60-something charismatic itinerant worker, who charms and insinuates himself into the graces of Nikos, a young American schoolteacher en route to Crete to reopen a shuttered mine he has inherited.
Zorba seems happy-go-lucky, but clearly he has weathered tragedies, which makes his open-heartedness and effusive optimism all the more intriguing. He acts instinctively on his emotions (and his considerable lust) whereas Nikos is crippled by his deliberative manner.
The small village in Crete is an economically-depressed but tight knit community ruled by tribalistic tradition and superstitions dating back centuries. Among the townspeople are Hortense (Laura Turnbull) an aging coquettish French courtesan who rents rooms to the newcomers, and The Widow (Katharine Amadeo), a lovely but emotionally distant young woman whose rebuffing of men’s advances has made her an outcast.
Hortense sets her marital cap on the amorous Zorba while Nikos struggles with his feelings for The Widow, all while the men and the town try to revive the mine.
Like many Greek tragedies, the story is fraught with love and hate, violence and failure, but ends with a paean to the resilience of the human spirit.
The script was adapted by Joseph Stein (Fiddler on the Roof) from Nikos Kazantzakis’ 1946 novel and Michael Cacoyannis’ 1964 film. The script is reasonably solid if not flawless, although it will help the audience to know the plot in advance in order to follow the rapid developments in the second half of the second act.
This is where having only a week and a half of rehearsal hampers a production: Cholerton is a skilled director and he has a strong cast, but it requires more time for artists to find the most effective way of getting across the elements of that second act. The result is a slightly muddy, confusing series of events flashing by folks unfamiliar with the story.
Still, there are copious virtues. Kander’s music is a glorious evocation of Mediterranean folk music folded into conventional tropes of a Broadway musical – the joyous production numbers, the soulful ballads and the rest. The late Fred Ebb – whose lyrics were often given short shrift in the public consciousness – are as strong as anything else he wrote: concise, emanating directly from character traits, alternately poetic and prosaic and profane as required.
Cholerton has an unmatched skill in this region for making concerts complete with the script on music stands seem kinetic and vibrant. We’ve seen fully-staged shows with three weeks’ rehearsal and epic-sized sets that are more static than what Cholerton achieves wearing artistic handcuffs. He’s helped this time by the choreography of cast member and primary dancer Lindsay Bell who creates the iconic line dancing and interpretive interludes that illustrate the romantic yearnings of characters.
Parry was fortuitous casting. Few people have heard of the experienced actor outside of Broadway aficionados and fans of Stephen Sondheim musicals – he has originated roles in four of the master’s world premieres. He brings a warm seductive baritone that wraps around the audience. His Zorba exudes the brio of a character who sucks the marrow out of life with a satisfying sigh. Without ever echoing Quinn, Parry creates his own iconic prole of an Everyman with voracious appetites and an infectious vivacity. Parry will be the first tell you that he is not a born terpsichorean, which makes his unselfconscious dancing all the more credible and endearing.
The rest of cast, most familiar names from the region, throw themselves into the material completely, especially Duckart, Hodos, Turnbull and Amadeo. But credit is due to the ensemble including Ken Clement, Roland Rusinek, Josh Lerner, Elizabeth Sackett, Cassandra Zepeda, Jim Ballard, Jose Luaces, Alyssa Fantel, Josh Stoughton and Bell.
Nods, too, to Linda Shorrock’s all-black costumes accented with vests, caps and other accessories; Tom Shorrock’s dappled lighting, and Dustin Hamilton’s all-black set design which, once again, is highlighted by Sean Lawson’s projections that encompassed black and white videos of the Crete shoreline, rough-grained photos of a small village and photographs of the faces of ordinary people.
But once again, here is where the budget for sets and costumes hampers the production. For the show to land as well as it can, the audience must get the sense of the proceedings occurring in a wild, forbidding, rocky land that has forged an equally hardscrabble character in its residents. The overwhelming sense should be a white, searing hot, unforgiving terrain that in itself explains how the people react. All that stylish black in the costumes and simple sets undercuts this essential element in the storytelling.
A final round of applause is due musical director and pianist Caryl Ginsburg Fantel with Louis Martinez on the bouzouki and guitar, and Roy Fantel on an array of percussion instruments. The lack of a full orchestra robs the score of some of its heft, but their adept musicianship correctly delivers the sense of a combo providing entertainment in a tavern.
But those shortcomings are what the audience is buying when it goes to a staged concert rather than a full-fledged production. You have to meet work at least halfway with your imagination.
Frankly, you will likely never see Zorba! again with artists of this quality. A rumored Broadway revival with Antonio Banderas has floated into the ether. The expense and logistics of the show are too overwhelming for a full-fledged production, since even the title has insufficient name recognition except to Boomers and their parents.
So savor this Zorba! while you can.
Note: Dramaworks will stage a second stage concert this summer, Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella from July 18-27 starring William Michals who starred last summer in Dramaworks’ Man of LaMancha.
Zorba plays through June 29 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, the Don & Ann Brown Theatre, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Performances 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday; 7 p.m. Sunday. Running time a little over two hours including intermission. Tickets are $40. Call (561) 514-4042, ext. 2, or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.
To read our interview with William Parry, click here.