New York City Center, NYC, May 9, 2015

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors for Cabaret Scenes

Zoe Wannamaker & John Turturo Photo: Joan Marcus
Zoe Wanamaker & John Turturro
Photo: Joan Marcus

As the season closer of the popular Encores! series at New York City Center, Zorba! states its sinister premise right at the top. “Life is what you do while you’re waiting to die,” an anthem that drives the show and is gloriously sung by Leader/Narrator, Marin Mazzie. Originally produced in 1968, two years after Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret, Zorba! reflects similar dark shadows of the world and offers a rich score, but has never reached the classic status of their other memorable musicals.

Briefly put, John Weidman’s adaptation of Joseph Stein’s book brings a likable if flavorless young American schoolteacher, Niko (Santino Fontana), to a village in Crete. He has inherited an abandoned mine and wants to check it out. On the way, he meets a fiery Greek peasant, Zorba (John Turturro), with no stated age, no career, who wanders where he chooses, self-assured and scoffing at society’s demands. He convinces Niko that he will show him how things are done here. Together they get to Crete and rent rooms from Hortense, a flirtatious woman of a certain age who catches Zorba’s eye. She is played with touching poignancy and humor by noted actress Zoe Wanamaker. Niko is soon drawn to a young village widow (Elizabeth A. Davis), wrapped in black mourning clothes.

Even under a bright Aegean sky, director Walter Bobbie preserves the undercurrent of the dark traditions where straying from the old ways often results in violent repercussions. Villagers are quick to avenge and death clouds the blue sky like black crows, waiting. When Niko and the widow share a night of passion, she pays in a violent way, stunning the audience.

The fluttery Hortense is doomed as well, coughing into a handkerchief, a quick hint that she is fading fast.

When Niko finds his mine is useless, he decides to head back home, while Zorba will go wherever his feet take him. “I fear nothing/ I hope for nothing/ I am free!”

From the top, this production of Zorba! lacks the overabundance and fire of the fast-living, hard-loving title character as Turturro fails to rise to the bold authoritative stature to inspire the community. The lead character in Nikos Kazantzakis’ 1946 novel is charismatic and Turturro, a successful film and stage actor, is a plucky Zorba at best, who shows effective comic timing, but lacks vocal musicality, dancing grace and magnetism.

Fontana (Cinderella) has a soaring and expressive vocal tone and moves well, but his character is bland and he might blend into the large cast if it were not for the ubiquitous brown suit he always wears.

Statuesque and singing at top form, Mazzie (Bullets Over Broadway) is the leader of the chorus, reminding everyone about life. Wanamaker is outstanding, touching the heart with her sensitive portrayal of Hortense. Like Turturro, she is not a singer, but she understands and absorbs her character and is delightful telling Zorba and Niko about her long-ago lovers in “No Boom Boom.” Her rendition of “Happy Birthday” is another winner. Also notable is Davis (Once) as the widow, vulnerable and stirring in her rendition of “Why Can’t I Speak?” and “That’s a Beginning” with Fontana and Mazzie.

Rob Berman and The Encores! Orchestra never fail to bring exuberance to the series’ musicals, here adding the Greek instrumental sounds of the oud and bouzouki. Josh Rhodes choreographed with energy. Scenic design by Anna Louizos exhibits sea-and-sky spaciousness even as she divides the stage between orchestra, dancing villagers and rocky hillsides.

Life and death. This is how the time goes by.

Elizabeth Ahlfors

Born and raised in New York, Elizabeth graduated from NYU with a degree in Journalism. She has lived in various cities and countries and now is back in NYC. She has written magazine articles and published three books: A Housewife’s Guide to Women’s Liberation, Twelve American Women, and Heroines of ’76 (for children). A great love was always music and theater—in the audience, not performing. A Philadelphia correspondent for Theatre.com and InTheatre Magazine, she has reviewed theater and cabaret for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia City News. She writes for Cabaret Scenes and other cabaret/theater sites. She is a judge for Nightlife Awards and a voting member of Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle.