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Zorba
Lyrics by Fred Ebb, Music by John Kander
Book by Joseph Stein, based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor
New Line Theatre
March 3, 2017

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Margeau Steinau, Dominic Dowdy-Windsor, Kent Coffel Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

One of the key lines from the Kander and Ebb musical Zorba is sung near the beginning of the show–“life is what you do when you’re waiting to die”. Currently on stage at New Line Theatre, Zorba shows its audience life in all its beauty and brutality.  At New Line, it’s presented with the usual strong cast and excellent singing, bringing this sometimes challenging show to vibrant life.

Zorba is an entertaining show, but it can also be kind of stark and brutal. It follows two central characters. The young, scholarly Nikos (Dominic Dowdy-Windsor), is full of idealism as he heads to a small Greek town to manage a mine he has inherited.  He meets the show’s title character, the older, boisterous Zorba (Kent Coffel) in a bar and brings him along to help him run the mine. This begins a relationship in which the younger Nikos is taught the realities of life and the more world-wise Zorba teaches as well as learning a thing or two. It’s structured as a “story within a story” that starts in the bar, narrated by a figure identified as Leader (Lindsey Jones), who reappears at various times throughout the course of the show. Through the course of the story, Nikos and Zorba encounter the local villagers and enter into complicated relationships with local women both dealing with loneliness in their own ways. There’s the older Madame Hortense (Margeau Steinau), who has had an eventful life and a string of short-lived relationships, who enters into something of a combative relationship with Zorba. There’s also the Widow (Ann Hier), who is ostracized by the local villagers, idealized by an infatuated young man (Evan Fornachon) whom she ignores, and who experiences a halting but powerful attraction to Nikos. The story is told with humor, drama, and occasionally a kind of harshness that seems flippant at times, although the music is strong and the characters lively and memorable. Like life, there are moments of beauty as well as of tragedy, although sometimes it seems as if the tragedy isn’t given the weight it should have.

This is a Kander and Ebb show, and as such the music is excellent. From the opening  “Life Is” to that song’s reprise that ends the show, there are many memorable songs, from Zorba’s rousing “The First Time” to his anthemic “I Am Free”, to Madame Hortense’s poignant “Only Love” and “Happy Birthday”. It’s a good script as well, for the most part, but at New Line it’s the performances that make the show, and especially those of the leads. Coffel is an ideal Zorba, with energy and charisma and wit, bringing this larger-than-life character to the stage with charm and veracity. There’s also Dowdy-Windsor as an especially sympathetic Nikos, and his scenes with Coffel are a real highlight of the show. Steinau is also a particular standout as the determined, lovestruck Madame Hortense, and Hier makes the most of the somewhat underwritten role of the Widow. Jones has a strong voice and presence as the Leader, as well, and Fornachon makes a sensitive impression as Pavli, the young man who is infatuated with the Widow.  These players are backed up by a cohesive ensemble, as well, although sometimes there can be a lack of energy in the more dramatic ensemble scenes. Overall, however it’s a strong cast, highlighted by the first-rate singing that New Line is known for.

Technically, the show is in good hands as well. Rob Lippert’s lighting and colorful set with pillars and a vivid Greek-village backdrop help to set the mood and tone of the show well, along with Sarah Porter’s excellent costumes. There’s also a superb band conducted by Sarah Nelson, doing justice to Kander and Ebb’s excellent score.  Michelle Sauer’s choreography is full of energy and true to the music and style of the show, well executed by the strong ensemble.

Zorba is a well-known story, as it was a book and a celebrated film before it was a musical. The musical, however, is my introduction to the story. Although its philosophy does seem to veer towards the harsh at times, it’s also a celebration of the beauty and messiness of life itself. At New Line, this show is brought to the stage with energy, intelligence, and an especially strong cast in the leading roles. It’s definitely a show worth seeing.

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Lindsey Jones (center) and Company Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

 New Line Theatre is presenting Zorba at the Marcelle Theatre until March 25, 2017.

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