Take a song as delicate as "The Butterfly," the astonishing voices of Donna Theodore and Paul Harman, the music of John Kander, the personalities of Lila Kedrova and Anthony Quinn and you can't miss pleasing a crowd--not by much. When "Zorba" opened Wednesday at the Pantages, it didn't.
Quinn and Kedrova put in a respectable first appearance in "Zorba" three years ago at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. So why should it come as a surprise that on its second time around this "Zorba" feels, if anything, strengthened?
Probably because one rarely expects a touring company three years down the line to deliver with care. Yet this one does.
This edition of the Joseph Stein/Fred Ebb/John Kander musicalization of the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis doesn't overcome all the weaknesses of its book or the sugariness of too many of Ebb's lyrics, but it has been streamlined.
Blissfully gone are some of the ersatz folk dances (Quinn lifting phony taverna tables in his teeth) that strained both our credulity and Quinn's considerable stamina.
Left is the naked spine of the piece, still sentimental and at times much too cute, but so masterfully buttressed by the vocal extravagance of the sexy Theodore (as leader/narrator) and by Harman's exceptional power and range (as the visiting American, Niko) that the experience is heightened. Road functionality here becomes a plus.
The simplification doesn't help oversweetened numbers such as the sappy "Happy Birthday" (a tougher moment here would have been heartrending) or overreaching ones like "No Boom Boom," but it does enhance the value of the show's best songs: The complex "Butterfly," mentioned above; "The Bend of the Road" and "Why Can't I Speak/That's a Beginning," which also benefits from the translucent honesty of Angelina Fiordellisi's sultry widow.
Above all, the paring away has unburdened and purified Quinn's acting performance. It still has the gruff, pragmatic exterior of those stark white Greek island houses, but inwardly it is leaner, deeper, gentler and more feeling. The voice is still sandpaper (true grit), but doing less, in his case, has added up to much more.
As for Kedrova, one threw in the towel (and the Kleenex) long ago. There simply is no putting up a defense when confronted by this Madame Hortense--a cockeyed bundle of vulnerability and spunk, teetering on spike heels, speaking breakable English, swirling helplessly in a long parade of silks, chiffons and organdies (magically fashioned into parasols, hats, gowns by Hal George). Like Zorba, we're undone on the spot, even when any rational mind can see that the put-on is excessive.
No matter. There's enough here that is solid enough to overcome the shameless mugging of the just adequate chorus and the bounciness of supposedly solid rock. (David Chapman and Mark Haack designed the set--would you believe white carpeting to mimic stucco?) The real loss is in the darker moments of the piece that never quite match the starkness of the Cretan landscape. The black shrouding device in Madame Hortense's death scene is as effective as it ever gets. But then I may be asking for a different show. . . .
Graciela Daniele's choreography wisely accommodates the leads' minimal abilities. The one time it tries something more intricate (the miners' dance), this band of gypsies has a hard time synchronizing sound and movement.
Still, "Zorba's" a crowd-pleaser and with such high-caliber supporting players as Theodore, Harman and Fiordellisi, it is doing for Quinn and Kedrova what "King and I" once did for Yul Brynner.
An announcement made prior to curtain urging people to take their seats stated there would be no seating for the first 15 minutes of the show. Whereupon the first 15 minutes of the show were disrupted by ushers with flashlights seating a steady flow of latecomers. Not only is this unfair to the rest of the audience and insulting to performers, but management had better do what it says--or not say it. 'ZORBA'
A revival of the Joseph Stein/Fred Ebb/John Kander musical based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis at the Pantages Theatre. Producers Barry and Fran Weissler, Kenneth-John Productions, Inc. Associate producer Alecia Parker. Original direction Michael Cacoyannis. Production supervisor Joel Grey. Choreography Graciela Daniele. Dance arrangements Thomas Fay. Musical supervisor Paul Gemignani. Musical director Al Cavaliere. Musical co-ordinator John Monaco. Orchestrations Don Walker. Sound designer T. Richard Fitzgerald. Set design David Chapman and Mark Haack. Costumes Hal George. Lighting Marc B. Weiss. Hairstyles and makeup Steve Atha. Stage manager Zane Weiner. Cast Anthony Quinn, Lila Kedrova, Donna Theodore, Angela Fiordellisi, Paul Harman, Charles Karel, Aurelio Padron, David Brummel, Frank Desal, Thomas David Scalise and others. Ends May 18 (410-1062).