Friday, May 8, 2015

Turturro Takes Stage As Zorba For Encores

Just as The King and I brings to mind Yul Brynner, the name Zorba immediately makes us think of Zorba the Greek and that could only be Anthony Quinn.
But unlike Yul Brynner, Anthony Quinn never won an Oscar for the role he made famous. In fact, he never snagged a best actor Oscar. His only Oscars were for best supporting actor and they were awarded for Viva Zapata and Lust for Life.
Still, like Yul Brynner, Quinn was often cast in more exotic roles, playing ruggedly handsome he-man parts of various races and ethnicities.
If you never saw Anthony Quinn in Zorba the Greek, you're missing one of the best film performances ever in one of the best movies ever made.
In 1968 the talented team of John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics) turned Zorba into a moderately successful Broadway musical which ran for more than 300 performances and then went on the road. But it didn't star Anthony Quinn -- not in its original run, anyway.
Then, in 1983 the show was revived with Quinn and Lila Kadrova recreating their film role, sort of. Quinn and Kadrova also toured in the revived musical but that was the last time we've seen a major production of the show. And yes -- we did see the Anthony Quinn/Lila Kadrova version of the musical and got to meet Quinn after the show.
Fast-forward to 2015. Broadway is now having a love affair with Kander and Ebb. Their triumphant Chicago is still running and is now the longest-running American musical on the Great White Way. Their classic Cabaret just completed a long run with Alan Cumming reprising his role. And their newest musical, The Visit with Chita Rivera has just opened to rave reviews and lots of Tony nominations.
As a sort of cherry on the Kander and Ebb sundae, Zorba last night opened a very limited run through Sunday as part of the Encores series at City Center.
This time around Zorba is played by John Turturro with co-stars Santino Fontana, Marin Mazzie, Zoë Wanamaker and Robert Cuccioli.
The story of Zorba focuses on the friendship that evolves between Zorba and Nikos (Fontana), a young American who has inherited an abandoned mine on Crete, and their romantic relationships with a local widow and a French woman (Wanamaker), respectively. A largely musical commentary on the story is provided by a character called The Leader (Mazzie).
Long before the term "bromance" came into vogue, Zorba gave us a man-crush story about a plaintive young man and his zesty, sometimes mentor.
Zorba is an unusual musical -- a musical that opens with a song (Life Is . . . ) that declares "life is what you do while you're waiting to die." And, much of Zorba is about death -- or at least the struggle to squeeze every drop out of every day because none of us knows which of our days will be our last. And, that's the great plea and lesson of Zorba, himself -- you must live and live every moment in time as if it's the first time you've ever lived it, because it truly is.
The plea is boldly trumped by Turturro in his opening song, The First Time. And indeed, Turturro sings well enough to pull it off even though this is probably the first time anyone in the audience has heard him sing on Broadway, or perhaps anywhere else for that matter.
Granted, Zorba (the show and the character) can be a bit preachy and modern musicals have learned to transmit their message (if they have any at all, these days) in a more indirect fashion.
Three people die in Zorba and none of the deaths are really pretty, though one (accompanied by a birthday song) takes us full circle from birth to death.
Still, if you didn't like the movie, you won't like the musical because this simply is not a finger-snapping, razzle-dazzle 'em show. But the Greek influence that is present throughout the score (complete with Bouzouki) is captivating. And, as always the 30-piece Encores Orchestra under the direction of Rob Berman is sheer perfection.
The young (but already impressively-accomplished) Santino Fontana has one of the best voices on Broadway. And the same came be said for more experienced Marin Mazzie, whose range is absolutely astonishing. We could easily listen to them all night.
And Zoë Wanamaker takes a role that could have quickly turned to caricature and infuses it with depth and poignancy.
Standouts: Mazzie's performances of Life Is . . . and The Crow; Wanamaker's take on No Boom Boom and Happy Birthday; Fontana's That's A Beginning and Turturro's understated Woman. Other numbers that resonate (with an outstanding ensemble) include The Top of the Hill and The Bend of the Road.
Zorba is a show of enough charm, zest and encapsulated truths (usually rendered by the title character himself) to give you new reason to face life's absurdities. And, 47 years after I first saw the show I found it to be richer and more meaningful than I had ever imagined.
This time around it was a lump-in-the-throat musical for me -- and that' just fine!

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