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Chicago by John Olson

Alas! Alack! Zorro is Back!
Quest Theatre Ensemble

Also see Richard's review of Cabaret and John's review of High Fidelity

Zorro
Maria Randazzo, Stephen Lydic, Kieran Welsh-Phillips, Jason Bowen, and Stephen Craig Barker
Having had a hit two years ago with their production of Barry Manilow's musicalization of the old melodrama The Drunkard, Quest chose to revisit the genre with a musical that is more a send-up of the genre than the real thing. While the audience was again urged to boo and throw popcorn at the villains and sigh at the appearances of the heroine, this Zorro is as much a satire of the 1950s TV show of the same name and its stereotypical portrayal of Mexicans and B-movie westerns. The Anglo performers playing Latinos mangle their accents as surely as if their dialect coach had been Charo. There's also an evil banker that is a dandy reminiscent of Harvey Korman's Hedley Lamarr in Blazing Saddles and an unkempt, corrupt sheriff with an acknowledged resemblance to Eli Wallach.

The story of this musical by Tim Kelly and David Reiser is set in "Old New Mexico" and concerns a corrupt banker, Buck Badum, who owns most of the town after repossessing the villagers' homes when they were unable to pay the usurious rates on his loans. (It's all too common to hear how older plays have new resonance to today's events, what with the current financial crisis and the outrageous number of foreclosures resulting from sub-prime mortgages, but this resemblance is too obvious to ignore.) Badum is about to steal the inheritance of the young girl who works as a cleaning woman in his hotel when his plot is foiled by Zorro. Not the real Zorro, but instead a bookish young man who poses as Zorro and in so doing saves the damsel and her new fortune.

The material is even slighter than it sounds, with bad puns and malapropisms abounding in the script, but the show works as a vehicle to showcase the talents of the Quest cast—many of whom are new faces on Chicago's north side theater scene. The villains of course have the best lines and the most fun, with Jason Bowen and Stephen Lydic fearlessly committing to their devilish Buck Badum and Sheriff Toady. Kieran Welsh-Phillips is a sexy villainess in the best James Bond tradition, meaning she gets to redeem herself in the end. Most prominent of the good guys is Don Alfredo, the most hapless villager and narrator of sorts. He's played by the very northern European looking Pavi Proczko, who delivers an impeccably incongruous faux-Mexican accent together with a woeful countenance that earns our sympathy. The putative hero and heroine, Henry/Zorro and Anita Sweepup, have relatively little stage time but Stephen Craig Barker and Maria Randazzo charm with their clean-cut innocence.

In the program notes, director Andrew Park explains the influence of the melodrama on American pop art like vaudeville, Burlesque, silent films and cartoons. He and his cast use the opportunity to provide further education, but more importantly to enhance the entertainment value of this little piece by providing an olio before the second act and explaining what it is in the program notes. If like me, you were unaware of this term, it refers to variety acts performed during the course of a play to provide time for scenery and costume changes. Traditionally, olio acts had little to do with the play, and that's the case here as well. The seven acts range from a solo on "The Sheik of Araby" by Proczko, three costumed "dancing cacti" moving to the "Toreador Song" from Carmen, a flamenco dance by Angelica Keenan, and a rendition of the Andrews Sisters' "Say Si Si" by Randazzo, Erin Robinson and Jennifer Young. It concludes with a medley of cartoon themes (Mighty Mouse, Road Runner and Underdog for example) sung by the male cast members and featuring life sized cutouts of the characters and a human puppet version of Popeye. It wouldn't quite be a Quest show without life-size puppets, and this gratuitous use of the designs by Megan Hovany is entirely welcome. In fact, the olio acts are really the best and most creative things about the show and a showcase for the choreography of Kerrie Korzatkowski.

Coming off Quest's most impressive full-scale production of Into the Woods this spring, this less ambitious Zorro is a bit of a letdown, but one can imagine that Woods was probably a budget-buster for the non-profit troupe that doesn't even charge admission for its shows. Even so, Quest gives us a visually appealing show. Nick Rupard's set is in his colorfully stylized signature and Joanna Melville's costumes are appropriately cheesy. If budget restrictions were the culprit for a more scaled-down-than-usual-production, we should especially urge patrons to be generous when the actors pass the hat at the end of the show. Or at the very least, boo extra loudly at the evil banker Buck Badum for the role of bankers everywhere in getting us into an economic crisis that reduces public arts grants and private donations.

Performances for Alas! Alack! Zorro's Back! are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through September 27 in Quest's resident space, the Blue Theatre at 1609 West Gregory, Chicago. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated and reservations are highly recommended. For more information, visit www.questensemble.org or call 312-458-0895.


Photo: Jeremy Lawson

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