The first dance

Encores is presenting a true flop this time, Zorbà (through Sunday). There’s plenty of attractive John Kander music for their wonderful 30-piece orchestra to play. But the take-away, for me, is a big What Not To Do, when writing a show.

Two men, of different generations, nationalities and educational level meet on the isle of Crete and take a shine to each other. The story then has them advising each other on romantic affairs. But the affairs themselves are severely under-developed. One of the ladies speaks so few lines, the title of her song, Why Can’t I Speak? is a question we’ve been asking about her all along. The other romance is mostly played for laughs but the jokes tend to be about an old woman’s extreme neediness. I found this rather difficult to sympathize with.

From the first act curtain forward, all these melodramatic tragedies pop up. We’re treading through a minefield and BOOM! there’s something else to feel sad about. Except we don’t because none of the characters have earned our interest, engaged our hearts. Zorbà expects us to feel strong feelings and we never do.

Making matters worse is a framing device that practically screams “This is important!” The pretentious and portentous leader of a monochrome chorus commands “Listen!” Dutifully we lean forward, eager to scoop up pearls of philosophic wisdom. But then none come. Zorbà grabs life by the horns, which is a good idea since you never know when it will end. That’s wisdom?

There have been some successful musicals that are more about a way-of-looking-at-the-world than actual dramatic events. It’s the sort of thing Jerry Herman did very well. He could get a larger-than-life character to spout a philosophy that wasn’t particularly profound (It’s Today!) and you ate it up. Fred Ebb’s lustful peasant, here essayed by the thin-voiced John Turturro, espouses a motto, The First Time, that left me wholly uncharmed.

The book is by Joseph Stein, the prolific librettist who was most at home depicting unfamiliar ethnic communities. One thinks of the Amish of Plain and Fancy, the shtetl residents of Fiddler on the Roof, the bread-loving French villagers of The Baker’s Wife. So, what’s up with these Cretins? Well, sometimes they hang around like vultures when people are about to die so they can steal their possessions and, at other times, town-wide slut-shaming can go so far as to be murderous. Charming culture, really; glad I spent two and a half hours with them.

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