Now that “The Visit,” the final musical by the songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb (best known for “Chicago” and “Cabaret”), has finally made it to Broadway, it’s a good time to take a look at “Zorba!,” an early work of theirs which premiered half a century ago. It is being staged for a short run at City Center as the final selection of this season’s Encores! series.
Based on the novel “Zorba the Greek” (which led to the popular 1964 film with Anthony Quinn), it examines the unlikely friendship between Nikos (Santino Fontana), a good-natured, young American who arrives in Crete hoping to reopen a coal mine, and Zorba (John Turturro), a late middle-aged Greek drifter with a carefree attitude toward life.
A mysterious figure (Marin Mazzie) opens the show with the lively, philosophic production number “Life Is.” She then continues to oversee and comment upon the action. Other women include an elderly French innkeeper (Zoë Wanamaker) and an attractive widow (Elizabeth A. Davis) who take a liking to the men.
Although “Zorba!” contains some haunting moments, much of the score is weak and the book is dark, strange and very slow. Considering how conceptual and movement-driven the piece is, a more intensive rehearsal period was probably needed to do it justice.
Turturro is miscast (he can’t sing) and misused (portraying Zorba as withdrawn and dazed instead of larger-than-life). Fontana gives a decent enough performance in a boring role. Mazzie is stunning and sexy whenever she takes the stage. Davis too is alluring. Wanamaker can be funny but her scenes are the weakest in the show.
If you go: “Zorba!” plays through Sunday at City Center. West 55th Street between Sixth and Seventh aves., nycitycenter.org.