Zorba

At the Shubert through Nov 2

ZORBA, the new musical stopping in Boston on its way to New York, deals a final blow to the Broadway myth that David Merrick is its greatest showman. Harold Prince, not the producer of the all-black Hello, Dolly, deserves the title, and after Zorba, no one will be able to deny it to him.

Prince first staked claim to his present heights with Cabaret, a musical that owed its success by and large to his conception and staging. But Cabaret had a lackadaisical book and some inept casting that tied his hands somewhat; it was not the triumph for this producer-director that it might have been.

Zorba is that triumph. Prince has the material this time and he goes to town. He has made the property (Nikos Kazantzakis' Zorba the Greek), already institutionalized by a successful movie, all his own.

As with Cabaret, Prince's first concern in Zorba is atmosphere. The tone of the show, sustained through the entire evening, is set the moment the curtain rises. The entire cast, only nameless figures at this point, sits in a semi-circle that stretches across the stage. Some are talking; some are joking; some have musical instruments and are singing snatches of Greek songs. This is Greece, 1924.

A tall woman with flowing black hair, wearing a flowing black dress, comes forward to a standing mike. She starts a song, but it isn't about the setting and it isn't about the characters, for there are none yet. The song tells about life, because before being a musical about Greece or its title character, Zorba is about nameless people living, loving, suffering and dying.

"Life is what you do while you're waiting to die/ Life is how the time goes by," she sings, her voice throbbing through the loudspeaker. The orchestra pulsates and the other people on stage stomp their feet in time and join in the song. There is no set on the stage and no subtlety in the musical number: the man whose story we are going to see is a man possessed by the most basic of passions. But Zorba is only one man and not at the center of Prince's show; his passions are.

Luckily Prince has found the right actor to voice the spectrum of human emotions so crucial to Zorba. His name is Herschel Bernardi and I can't get him out of my mind. For Zorba, every minute of life must be lived as if death were around the corner, with no time to be wasted. Raising his eyes to the Crete sky, spreading open his arms, and kicking out his feet as if he could surely ascend to heaven if he worked enough at it, Bernardi makes not only a stunning Zorba but a majestic spectacle of human will.

He has to share the stage with some other people, among them Maria Karnilova. This is the first time in Miss Karnilova's career (which includes performances varied as a stripper in Gypsy and Tevye's wife in Fiddler on the Roof) that we see enough of her to leave the theatre satisfied. As Hortense, the French lady on the hill who lets Zorba share her bed, she becomes a vision of lonely fortitude in the face of life's injustice. In one scene, during a song that tells of the "pretty admirals" who kept company with her in the distant past, she breaks into a dance she says she did when she worked as a cabaret star. Stepping gingerly then proudly to the music, swinging into half-remembered bumps in her pink spotlight, Karnilova's Hortense becomes a wilted flower--a honeyed symbol of forgotten dreams. It's enough to make the audience forget that Miss Karnilova hardly bothers to impart the fact that her character is French.

For that matter, John Cunningham, playing the young intellectual who hires Zorba to run the mine he has inherited, does little to suggest that he is Greek (which in this version, unlike the film, he is). But like Miss Karnilova, he compensates handily. As Niko, the man Zorba teaches how to live, Cunningham works hard to make his characterization more than the dull stiff it easily could be. He is, of course, helped out by the writing. Joseph Stein, the author of the show's book, establishes Niko quickly in the second scene and never allows him to fade from view after that. (As in his book for Fiddler, Stein never lets any character slip through his fingers.) When Niko finally forgets pretense, allowing himself to fall in love with the beautiful widow (played with quiet grace by Carmen Alvarez), the transformation is thrilling, as Stein and Cunningham have created someone worth caring about.

Yet for all the strength in the acting, it is Prince's staging that dominates Zorba. I am convinced that this man knows more about building a musical scene than anyone else around. In this show he has chosen to frame the action with music, so that at times one is hardly conscious songs are beginning and ending. For this purpose he keeps a chorus of sorts on stage nearly the whole time. The singers and dancers drift in and out of the action or often just sit on the high platforms that are a permanent fixture upstage. Leading this group is Lorraine Serabian (the tall dark singer of the first scene), whose gutsy voice is essential to the show's feeling of life projected directly from the soul with no stops along the way. Often Prince uses her and her companions to move along the action, as when black-frocked women chanting a low lament about "the crow" before Hortense's death scene become ravaging parasites themselves at the scene's end, even before their victim finishes her last gasps. As if this weren't enough, Prince shows the women hideously climbing up the platform, evil beasts holding Hortense's gaily colored parasols against the background of lighting designer Richard Pilbrow's mournful grey sky.

Regrettably Zorba's music does not always reach the level of Prince's craftsmanship. John Kander and Fred Ebb, the composer and lyricist respectively, have still failed to produce the great score that their Flora the Red Menace and Cabaret hinted was on the way. While many of the numbers have uncommonly fine melodies and all are at least a notch above average musically, sometimes they add little to dramatic values clearly evident in the book and staging. Neither of Zorba's solos tell us much we don't already know about the character at the time of the songs. (As with their past projects, Kander and Ebb's biggest difficulty this time is their occasional loss for a solid song idea.) Perhaps if they find the right approach for a Zorba number in the first act, the burden on the book would be eased--thereby permitting some necessary cutting in this now-overlong act.

But despite these loopholes (no doubt to be remedied during the Boston run), Zorba stands as a nearly finished product. Prince has woven just about all of the show's components into his unifying conception. Ronald Field's joyous choreography is so tightly linked to the staging, that it's hard to believe Prince did not devise the dances himself. Don Walker's orchestrations, a precise blend of Greek and Broadway instrumentation, flood the theatre with frenzies of rhythm, adding as much to the atmosphere as Boris Aronson's simplistically beautiful sets.

But while producer Harold Prince's knack for bringing together the right artists to execute his Zorba tells much of his showmanship, it is his own artists as director that contributes most to his triumph. After a long dry spell since the heyday of Jerome Robbins, Prince has come to remind us what the serious musical is all about.