The Harlequin Dinner Playhouse's production of "Zorba" is not especially ambitious or resonant, but it does have enough unwashed earthiness and bighearted sentiment to carry the basic theme.
Director Lynn Phillip Seibel offers a loving, if somewhat pedestrian, version of the uplifting 1968 musical, which is based on Nikos Kazantzakis' idealistic novel of a Greek peasant whose life is devoted to play over work, impulse over logic. Seibel takes Zorba's pledge to "live each day like it's your last" seriously, and he tries hard to get the audience to go along.
His means are simple: Keep the pace lively with rousing production numbers and spotlight Paul Michael as Zorba whenever possible. The numbers are sometimes too breathless and noisy for their own good but, for the most part, it all adds up to an appealing mix.
This "Zorba" may seem preachy and theatrical at times, but it's also atmospheric and rarely dull. Besides, the message, no matter how impractical, is a good one. All work and no play, no cultivation of the emotions or the spiritual, makes for a life half-lived.
Michael is a rather inviting Zorba, playing him as a merry prankster with lots of bluster, yet always full of good intentions. His portrayal is not as intriguing as those projected by others--Anthony Quinn's stage and screen Zorba, as much shifty conniver as lovable adolescent, remains the prototype--but the blithe openness he brings to the role makes up for a lack of depth.
This Zorba is the ultimate party hound, quick to take a drink, a dance or a kiss. Michael's voice, while hardly a refined instrument, is also right for the role. Throaty and raw, it communicates the character's passion, particularly on Zorba's anthem, "I Am Free."
Michael has an effective foil in Lance Phillips as Nikos, the studious, uptight chap with whom Zorba takes up. Phillips makes Nikos' emotional growth believable and helps to create a moving rapport between the two characters. His sturdy singing holds up well throughout.
The rest of the performances are hit or miss, with several in the ensemble trying too hard. The better portrayals are registered by Shirley Romano as Hortense, an aging, bawdy Frenchwoman who takes a liking to Zorba; Tom Flynn as Mimiko, the village simpleton; and Jim Alexander, Leon Natker, Jeffrey Rockwell and Bruce Winant, who do a giddy number as lovers from Hortense's past.
Ron Olsen's set design is graceful and utilitarian (it represents a village and cafe, depending on the scene), but it also dominates the stage, making Jim Alexander's choreography seem pinched at times. Catherine Beaumont's peasant costumes, with their scuffed boots, waist sashes and black scarfs, help create an authentic look.
'ZORBA' A Harlequin Dinner Playhouse production of "Zorba." Music by John Kander. Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Book by Joseph Stein. Directed by Lynn Phillip Seibel. With Paul Michael, Livia Genise, Tina Paradiso, Lance Phillips and Shirley Romano. Choreography by Jim Alexander. Sets by Ron Olsen. Costumes by Catherine Beaumont. Lighting by Marissa Davis. Musical director, D. Jay Bradley. Plays through Aug. 9 at 8:15 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 9 p.m. Friday; 1 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Saturday; and 1 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $16-$27. Information: (714) 979-7550.