“Life is only that, mister. Life is simply that, mister. That and nothing more than that.”
These lines from the opening number of Zorba, the current offering at the North Shore Music Theatre, sum up the show pretty well: a capable cast and memorable score combine with a methodical, well-crafted book for an evening of entertainment—that and nothing more than that.
Zorba, Kander and Ebb’s musical comedy based on the novel which became an Academy Award-winning film, tells the story of a larger-than-life Greek (Zorba) and his traveling companion (Nikos).
Together the two men find and lose loves, attempt to open an old mine and philosophize about life. Set on the island of Crete, this straightforward musical makes no attempt to use Greek culture as anything more than a backdrop. This is a musical about Zorba, his simple wisdom and the profound effect it has on those around him, namely Nikos.
Watching Zorba, one is entertained by the title character’s boisterous personality and sharp words, but the authors do not allow this character real situations, real problems or real feelings, and the audience is left with only indifference towards the outcome of his relationship with his lover Hortense and his friend Nikos.
That said, Zorba is a perfect vehicle for aging stars. North Shore originally cast real-life couple Olympia Dukakis (Mr. Holland’s Opus) and Louis Zorich (Paul Reiser’s father on Mad About You), but both left the production because of scheduling conflicts. The show, however, misses nothing with the stars it does possess.
Tony Award-winner Ron Holgate (1776) plays the title role, and Tony-nominee Anita Gillette (Chapter Two), Hortense, his aging lover. Holgate creates a powerful character and infuses “I Am Free,” “The First Time” and the show’s other standards with energy and life. Gillette’s “Only Love,” though barely sung, is delicate and pleasant. As for the supporting players, Glory Crampton and Natalie Toro add terrific vocal presence as the Widow and the Leader, respectively; Franc D’Ambrosio is likeable as Nikos, but one wonders if his transformation at the hands of Zorba need be so obvious.
Despite the trivial nature of its material, this production of Zorba does a remarkable job of engaging its audience, no doubt aided by its remarkable facilities. The North Shore Music Theatre is a theater-in-the-round about a half-hour outside of Boston with about 1,800 seats and technical capabilities that are staggering. Hydraulic lifts, spectacular lights and fluid scene changes help keep the show moving, and the audience pointing at whatever new lighting fixture was dropping, rising or spinning.