Zorba is exactly what I want out of Reprise! - an opportunity to experience a rarely revived musical in a production that makes me fall in love with it. After Reprise's latest foray into dance-heavy musicals (On The Town) and not particularly old musicals (City of Angels), it is especially refreshing to see Reprise! operating back in its comfort zone - bringing to new ears a delightful Kander & Ebb score full of the zest and enthusiasm one usually associates with the name Zorba.
Marc Kudisch and the cast of Zorba
The production takes place in a "Bouzouki Parlor," in which a group of performers are sitting around making merry, and ultimately decide to recount the tale of Zorba. The ensemble is seated in a large semi-circle on stage, and members of the company are given roles to play in the tale, while the others remain seated, often playing music, clapping along, or commenting on the action. The enthusiasm of the ensemble is catching, leading the audience to nearly involuntary toe-tapping, especially during the rousing opening number, "Life." The company is large enough to bring the necessary volume to the song, and they fill it with real joy. Tom Ruzika's lighting bathes the stage in a soft yellow glow, which gives the number an almost magical appearance. And it's all led by Camille Saviola, whose lead vocal is the very definition of singing "lustily." It's a brilliant beginning - in fact, at some of the slower moments in the 105-minute single act, you may find yourself hoping for a reprise at the end of the show.
Marc Kudisch plays Zorba, the man who wanders in and out of others' lives, living for the moment and spreading his philosophy of drinking deeply from the cup of life. With his greying beard and loose-fitting clothing, Kudisch is virtually unrecognizable as Zorba. More than that, he successfully exudes Zorba's charisma. Zorba won't work unless Zorba's passion for life is not only honest, but infectious, and Kudisch's Zorba makes believers out of the audience. But there's a cost to Zorba's easygoing warmth - Joseph Stein's book shows how living life without any attachments can make one irresponsible and insensitive, and Kudisch doesn't shy away from moments where Zorba seems pigheaded and selfish.
The story follows Zorba as he talks his way into travelling with Nikos, a young American who has inherited an abandoned mine on Crete. Stan Chandler plays Nikos a bit on the nerdy side. Anyone looks repressed compared to Zorba, but Chandler's Nikos could really use a push to get into the game of life. Chandler's performance is largely unremarkable - the sole exception being a beautiful reaction, late in the play, in which Nikos comes to understand what Zorba has been trying to teach him.
Judy Kaye plays Zorba's love interest (or lust interest, as the case may be), Hortense, a former chanteuse who now rents out rooms in her home and enjoys reminiscing of happier times gone by. Judy Kaye's Hortense is adorable - she's occasionally dippy and frequently needy - but her introductory song, "No Boom Boom," is a show-stealer.
Not all of the cast are as memorable. Lesli Margherita plays a widow who catches Nikos's eye. Margherita's singing is lovely, but her characterization is nearly non-existent, beginning with her failure to even attempt a Greek accent. (Several members of the ensemble have bad Greek accents, but at least they try.) The Widow is clearly written as an emotionally distant character, but Margherita puts so little into her, it is difficult to see why Nikos - and several others in the village - are attracted to her. Additionally, director David Lee would do well to have his ensemble tone down their enthusiasm after the initial number. At times, some ensemble members' ceaseless mugging (abetted by an occasional unfortunate lack of precision in the lighting) tends to divert attention away from the main action.
All things considered, Reprise! gives Los Angeles audiences a real treat. We get a solid Kander & Ebb score, well-sung, in a production that doesn't skimp on the underlying philosophy of the piece. If Reprise! didn't actually hit this one out of the park, it's a solid triple.
Zorba runs at UCLA Freud Playhouse through May 14, 2006. For information, see www.reprise.org.
Reprise! Broadway's Best - Jim Gardia, Producing Director - presents Zorba. Book by Joseph; Music by John Kander; Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Adapted from "Zorba the Greek" by Nikos Kazantzakis. Originally Produced and Directed on the New York Stage by Harold Prince. Choreography of the New York Production by Ronald Field. Scenic Design Evan A. Bartoletti; Costume Design Heather Carleton; Lighting Design Tom Ruzika; Sound Design Philip G. Allen; Orchestrations by Don Walker; Dance Music Arranged by Dorothea Freitag; Associate Music Director Darryl Archibald; Music Coordinator Joe Soldo; Technical Director Brian Staubach; Casting Director Michael Donovan, C.S.A; Production Stage Manager Jill Gold; Press Representative David Elzer/DEMAND PR; Company Manager Danny Feldman; Director of Development Alicia Ide; General Manager Kelly Estrella; Music Direction Gerald Sternbach; Choreography by Dan Mojica; Directed by David Lee.