Zorba the Greek is a character. And in New Line Theatre’s musical version, Kent Coffel triumphs as the colorful philosopher.
With sharp musical direction, and the appealing sweet sounds of a bouzouki, the production’s ethnic flavor comes through.
The tight ensemble emphasizes the spirit of hardy Crete peasants and does everything it can with ensemble roles that were more caricature-like in Joseph Stein’s libretto 49 years ago. It was a much more different, less politically correct time.
The supporting cast of Mara Bollini, Sarah Dowling, Robert Doyle, Evan Fornachon, William Pendergast, Devin Riley, Kimi Short and Sara Rae Womack summon much enthusiasm, imbuing them with energy and humanity.
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This larger-than-life Zorba was immortalized in Nikos Kazantzakis’ 1946 novel, which was adapted into the 1964 movie starring Oscar-nominated Anthony Quinn, and this 1968 musical with music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb. These were all periods when our world view was considerably smaller.
Scenic designer Rob Lippert’s picture-postcard perfection of a sun-dappled Mediterranean isle is displayed in a beautifully detailed mural and makes you want to book a trip. Lippert, of O’Fallon, also did the lighting design.
The musical starts out in a bouzouki parlor in Greece in 1924 as the locals are telling stories. The theme of “Life Is” is embodied in the opening song, sung robustly by Lindsey Jones, which celebrates all the facets of humanity — happiness and heartbreak.
Zorba seems like a distant cousin of another larger-than-life leading character, Tevye, In fact, the book writer Stein also wrote “Fiddler on the Roof.” Similarities abound, but there aren’t the rich family subplots here.
Rather, Zorba befriends Nikos, an American overseas to take over his family’s abandoned mine on Crete, giving the impoverished locals hope for employment and a better livelihood. Zorba ingratiates himself with Nikos, dispensing wisdom and encouraging him to embrace life. They take off for Crete and a life-altering adventure begins. Coffel and Dominic Dowdy-Windsor have a palpable camaraderie.
As uptight Nikos, Dowdy-Windsor opens up under Zorba’s tutelage, and falls in love with the young widow outcast, played by Ann Hier. Both Hier and Dowdy-Windsor are impressive vocalists, and bring out emotions in their duets “The Butterfly” and “That’s a Beginning.”
Matching irrepressible Zorba’s zest for life is Margeau Steinau as the French woman Hortense. With polish and pizzazz, Steinau delivers “Goodbye, Canavaro,” “Only Love,” and “Happy Birthday.”
Sarah Nelson’s music direction is impressive, as is the band’s impeccable work: Nelson on piano, D. Mike Bauer on bouzouki and guitar, Twinda Murry on violin, Clancy Newell on percussion, and Jake Stergos on guitar and bass.
Co-directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor emphasize the show’s ‘live in the moment’ philosophy, which is always good to be reminded of, and this production is all about living out loud.
The script has a few confusing, wobbly scenes, despite the cast passionately trying, and the choreography overall was a weak spot. While the “Zorba” score isn’t as classic and timeless as Kander and Ebb’s “Cabaret” and “Chicago,” this production has individual elements that shine.
And “Zorba” has the kind of message that makes us appreciate life as it is.