I have a difficult time staying away from Fiddler on the Roof comparisons when I consider 42nd Street Moon's production of Zorba. With the help of their common book writer, Joseph Stein, the two musicals exhibit similar leading characters and musical styles. Beyond all else, Zorba and Fiddler exhibit the same contradicting emotions of sadness and joy shown to perfection through stories exhibiting the spirit of a specific culture.
In Kander and Ebb's rarely done musical, the definition of life takes a step away from the cabaret. According to the Leader of a group of modern Greeks gathering to tell the story of Zorba the Greek, life is what you do while you wait to die. Adapted from the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, the musical follows Zorba as he becomes a mentor to a stranger, teaching him to deal with the tragedies of life and move on, living each day as if it were his last. The storytellers interject to reflect the silent, inner emotions of characters as the story progresses, adding much of the humor and foot-stomping fun to the show, but also playing a major part in the darker moments of the musical, which at times come with exquisitely beautiful music courtesy of John Kander.
Much like Fiddler, Zorba leaves audiences feeling both hopeful and sober. 42nd Street Moon has brought together the perfect creative team and cast to convey the varying emotions of energy, passion and anger throughout the show. A simple set and orchestra contributes to the pervasive feeling of a Greek community. Fantastic choreography gives audiences a reason to dance. And I can't compare acting, but having listened to clips of both Broadway recordings, I judge that 42nd Street Moon's cast vocally surpasses much of the Broadway casts' vocals.
The show's success hinges on the power and talent of its title character and the "Leader" who narrates his story. Michael Stevenson breathes life into Zorba, much the same way Topol brought life to the character of Tevye in the film version of Fiddler on the Roof. Not only does Stevenson have a smooth, joyous voice, he leaves audiences wanting more than the two or three small opportunities he has to exhibit his voice. Such talents come as no surprise once you read Stevenson's bio. The actor graduated from American Conservatory Theatre's M.F.A. program and has performed for the renowned San Francisco company, as well. Alexandra Kaprielian exhibits strength as the Greek storyteller, known as the Leader. Kaprielian's confidence exudes Greek life and her striking voice carries most of the show.
Teressa Byrne still uses the twitter vibrato I critiqued when she played Kay in 42nd Street Moon's version of Oh, Kay. Byrne also has trouble blending in with the chorus when she's not playing her specific character. She clearly has a gorgeous voice, but the twitter vibrato leaves me wondering why she can't sing a straight tone (as her YouTube videos clearly demonstate she is capable of) instead of taking her voice up and down with so little control. Luckily, that vibrato matches her character's sadness in Zorba, which helped me to enjoy her vocal performance.
As an actress, however, Byrne stood out above all others. Byrne gave a stirring performance as the mourning widow looking for someone kind to love and take care of her. From the moment she first steps onto the stage, Byrne engages the audience. Even in silence, her facial expressions speak, captivating all onlookers.
Ian Leonard also impresses opposite Stevenson and Byrne as the quiet, scholarly stranger Zorba mentors. Leonard perfectly embodies his character's growth and enchants audiences with his strong singing.
With such talented cast members and beautiful staging, Director Greg MacKellan and Choreographer Staci Arriaga give audiences plenty of reasons to shout Opa! When the show ends, the Leader and her Greek friends no longer tell Zorba's story alone. Audiences will sing this productions' praises long after the closing bows.