Whatever one may think about the musical 'Zorba,' and there is a good deal to be said both for and against it, there is no denying that the revival that came to the Broadway last night is striking, better than the original 1968 production, and that Anthony Quinn is little short of magnificent in the role he created on film almost 20 years ago.
Although it has been touring since the first of the year, this is no tired road-show revival come to breathe its last in New York. It has been superbly staged by Michael Cacoyannis, who directed the movie, "Zorba the Greek," and the supporting players are generally excellent.
Quinn, I was astonished to realize, has not been seen on Broadway since 1962's "Tchin-Tchin." He surely belongs here, for while he is no singer (fortunately, he has little actual singing to do), his hearty account of the vibrant vagabond Zorba is an enormously skillful characterization in terms of pure acting. He takes full command of the Broadway's stage in a performance that keeps growing upon you and ends triumphantly.
With him once again, as she was in the motion picture, is Lila Kedrova as the faded French demimondaine who boards Zorba and his American "boss" in Crete, which is the story's principal setting. She is a fluttery, kittenish delight. And Robert Westenberg, the young American who hired Zorba to reopen an abandoned mine he has inherited, DOES sing well, and act well, too, in addition to being both handsome and personable. Debbie Shapiro, threading the action as the Chorus, comments and incites in fine, full voice. Taro Meyer is winsome as the ill-fated native girl, or young widow, the Greek-American Niko (Westenberg) becomes attached to.
In all respects, this was a most ambitious musical with a strong, if occasionally diffuse, book by Joseph Stein, who also wrote "Fiddler on the Roof," a rich score by John Kander and intelligent lyrics by Fred Ebb. In fact, this is the most ambitious of all the Kander-Ebb musicals, and therein lies one of the evening's chief difficulties. Sticking close to the story, and carefully avoiding anything in the nature of a hit song, they sometimes approach the operatic style that "Zorba" probably requires for complete fulfillment. For the violence of the peasant life on Crete - the knifing to death of the young widow for spending a night with Niko and exchanging her black mourning garb for red, and the native woman's plundering of Madame Hortense's (Kedrova's) apartment once she has died - suggests the emotional climate of a "Cavalleria Rusticana," at the very least. Zorba's carefree acceptance of fate can't lighten the story sufficiently to overcome its harshness - that is, until the engaging finish as the two men part.
Of course, much the same thing could be said of the Kander-Ebb "Cabaret," but the atmosphere was more lurid there and the songs more deliberately tuneful. "Zorba" really stretched the pair's talents too far, though it was an admirable try with many affecting musical moments, such as Zorba's plaintive "Women" and Hortense's "Happy Birthday."
There is probably a mite too much drifting in and out of arches in Cacoyannis' occasionally self-conscious staging, but his eye for both the full stage picture and the telling detail is superb. It is an unusually artful example of musical staging. Graciela Daniele's dance numbers are fluid, energetic, and authentic-looking, though of course the climactic duet between Zorba and Niko, however brief, is the undeniable high spot in this regard.
Stein's book has its dull stretches, David Chapman's scenery looks fine in spite of all its travels, and so do Hal George's costumes. The lighting, by Marc B. Weiss, is also apt.
"Zorba" is a large-scaled, grand - I was about to say "grand opera" - musical, one to be admired despite its shortcomings, and one unmistakably worth seeing if only for Quinn's majestic portrayal of a lovable rascal.
Go and see Zorba. There are times when a photograph tells it all. On the cover of the Playbill is a picture of Anthony Quinn as Zorba, that particular Greek. It's an emblematic picture, and it tells you just about all you need to know about the musical. Quinn is staring out, both nervous and confident.
A man. A mensch. Important that, because he happens to be playing, in effect, the half-brother of Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof. Zorba itself, the Broadway musical of 15 years ago, written by the Fiddler's fiddler, Joseph Stein, was a spin-off. As I recall it, only a minority of critics, but including myself, thought it actually spun.
But Quinn. He played the movie on which the musical is somewhat flimsily based. Quinn - not the greatest singer, although his broken, rasping baritone is absolutely fair enough - is an actor of heroic dimension.
Last time - well, the penultimate time, in actual fact - he was on Broadway, the guy stood toe to toe with Laurence Olivier in Anouilh's Beckett. That was no easy achievement - Quinn is not just a pretty movie face. He is an actor of infinite authority. And pain.
Last night at the Broadway Theater, Quinn Zorba came back to New York. It is an identification impossible to resist.
This is a serious musical - it talks about life and death. It even, appropriately I suppose, has a Greek chorus, and it is intended to make a comment of a way of life not commonly encountered in the musical theater.
The musical was originally based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis about a young man from Athens with a small inheritance, growing up somewhat suddenly in the Isle of Crete, that Green Jewel in the blue, desperately blue, Aegean Sea.
His tutor, was Zorba. They meet in a cafe in Piraeus. He comes to the boy, Niko and says: "I am Zorba. Take me with you."
Niko - and the rest is his history. The history includes Zorba's wooing the beautifully aging landlady, Hortense, and Niko's love for a young widow. Both loves end in death.
But that is not the story's message. Zorba is a man who lives life at the moment. He tells us the story of an old man who lives as if he were going to live forever - only to top it with the comment that he, Zorba, lives as if he were about to die at once. Zorba - the free spirit; the man or woman we instinctly wish to be.
Joseph Stein's book - which I think is more closely related to the original novel than even the movie version - is beautiful, life assertive and death accepting.
The use of a Greek chorus - here personified by the somberly handsome presence of Debbie Shapiro - is daring, and not always successful. It intrudes, at times, on modern manners.
The music by John Kander goes a bit heavy on the bouzouki, but the lyrics by Fred Ebb are handsomely apt. The songs always sound as if they are about to break into the insidious rhythms of Never on Sunday, by Miko Theodrakis, but they never do, not even on Saturday.
No, the music and lyrics are fair enough, and in both these and Stein's book one often glimpses the shaping hand of Harold Prince, the show's original director.
Now the director is Michael Cacoyannis, who, scarcely by chance, happened to be the director of the Zorba movie. Cacoyannis has not only reassembled his movie star, Quinn, but also gotten Lila Kedrova to repeat, in musical form, her legendary Hortense.
It would have been too much to have expected the reincarnation of the movie's then young stars, Alan Bates and Irene Papas, but the ardently eager Robert Westenberg and the tragically doomed hungry Taro Meyer do very neatly indeed.
But when the chips are down, the story told, and the music faded into the crepuscular obscurity of a Greek seafront tavern, at dusk, it is Zorba that counts.
It was Zorba that counted in the novel, it was Zorba that counted in the movie, and it is Zorba, here and now, standing up to be counted on the stage.
Indeed Miss Kedrova, deliquescently feminine, like a Turkish delight made with some unlikelihood into a Greek of pneumatic proportions and artfully artless smiles, is superb. Whoever imagined she wouldn't be - she can, in her own fluting fashion, even sing.
But Zorba is Zorba and Zorba is Quinn. He is outrageous - even his curtain calls are a sort of calculated effrontery. But he has identified himself so matchlessly with his role that comment upon him as an actor becomes totally irrelevant. However - were I to be permited a comment, I would suggest: "Great!" Or something a little more enthusiastic.
Maybe a few diehards still picture the Parthenon when thinking of Greece, but most everyone else conjures up the sight of Anthony Quinn lifting his arms to a broad sky and dancing to the ever-quickening pulse of the bouzouki. When Mr. Quinn first played Zorba the Greek two decades ago, in the film version of the Nikos Kazantzakis novel, he created a movie image as durable as the M-G-M lion. Now the actor has returned to the part - playing it on stage for the first time in the revival of the musical ''Zorba'' - and you might say he is tempting the fates. One exaggerated move, and Mr. Quinn would lose the spontaneity that made the image of Zorba first grab us. The yeasty old Greek who still lives on film would be replaced by a plaster icon, a self-parody, a cliche.
But Mr. Quinn, I'm happy to report, avoids that trap entirely in the show at the Broadway. Even though his vehicle is large and lumbering, the actor refuses to inflate the part of Zorba to that of a star ritualistically acting out his own legend. His characterization is modest in scale and, given the role, remarkably dignified. He stands before us in his cloth cap, his graphite eyes either laughing or mourning in his weather-beaten face, and gambles that we will accept him as an authentic force of nature.
The gamble is won in part because everything Mr. Quinn does is so simple - even the randy jokes about female pulchritude are underplayed. The actor has the confidence and talent to project his personality with the tidiest of means - a philosophical shrug, a majestic stiffening of the spine, a grave tilt of the head. His zest really seems primordial - not reconstituted and amplified for Broadway consumption - and his added years are worn well. When Zorba describes himself as an old man whose ''inner'' self is ''slender like a reed,'' we now see both men in Mr. Quinn. The sentimental pull of this double image is as sweet as the bright flower that Zorba tucks behind his ear.
No less delightful is the star's partner, Lila Kedrova, as she recreates her film role of the dying French courtesan, Madame Hortense. A small, round, smeary-featured woman out of a Toulouse-Lautrec canvas, she also exists in both the past and present. When Miss Kedrova apologetically tells Zorba that she ''was not always the way you see me now,'' she kicks up a delicate ankle and bats her big, Betty Boop eyes with a schoolgirl's blushing flirtatiousness. Miss Kedrova may indeed be of a certain age, but we see the young ''cabaret star'' she claims to have once been; we also see that the old Hortense is remembering the young Hortense just as we do. No wonder Miss Kedrova shimmers, and no wonder our eyes mist over.
That ''Zorba'' itself fails to shimmer under these circumstances comes as a surprise. The casting of Mr. Quinn and Miss Kedrova would seem to solve the major problem the show had the first time around: Herschel Bernardi and Maria Karnilova, who capably originated the musical's leads in 1968, couldn't escape the shadows of their film antecedents - or the shadows of their own previous pairing in ''Fiddler on the Roof.'' But if that flaw has now been remedied, some new difficulties have cropped up.
The basic Kazantzakis material, faithfully replicated in Joseph Stein's book, has outlived its day. Zorba's grabby philosophy of life, which he passes on to his bookish and repressed young employer Niko, is essentially a platitudinous recipe for reckless womanizing and guiltless irresponsibility; while it once seemed liberating and romantic, it now sounds juvenile. Perhaps to take the portentous edge off Zorba's pronouncements, the director, Michael Cacoyannis, has lightened the show. The grit he brought to the film is gone, and so is the studied bleakness that Harold Prince originally gave to the musical. Even the show's opening lyric has been softened: Life is no longer ''what you do while you're waiting to die'' but ''what you do till the moment you die.''
Unfortunately, this new plan leads nowhere. An inexperienced director of musicals, Mr. Cacoyannis applies a bland patina of showbiz ethnicity to ''Zorba,'' throwing the evening into pageantry and limbo. Where Mr. Prince used a fierce female narrator (or, if you will, Greek chorus) to establish his production's dark mood, Mr. Cacoyannis doesn't know what to do with Debbie Shapiro, the strong-voiced performer he's cast in the role. Miss Shapiro wears Greenwich Village-style gypsy garb and employs a repertory of smoldering looks appropriate to an Atlantic City lounge act. Nor does Graciela Daniele, the inspired choreographer of ''The Pirates of Penzance,'' add any style: Working on the cramped stage space allowed by David Chapman's whitewashed-stone setting, she contributes extraneous, foot-stomping ''peasant'' numbers that give the show the whiff of the tourist trap.
In addition to creating some tedium, the staging somehow pushes the momentous events of ''Zorba'' - a suicide, a revenge murder, a mine disaster - into the background. The more intimate moments work better - thanks both to the stars and to the best of the score. Though sometimes echoing their previous work in ''Cabaret,'' ''Zorba'' is an anomaly in the songwriting career of John Kander and Fred Ebb: When they write a dirge with the lyric ''what doesn't die/ never was born,'' they are far (too far) from their home turf of ''New York, New York.'' Yet there are charming numbers here - especially for Miss Kedrova and for Robert Westenberg, an unusually sensitive young actor and singer whose forceful performance as the blossoming Niko promises a bright future.
Though Mr. Quinn is no singer, his extended arms, reaching to heaven as fervently as ever, pull us into his climactic anthem and the spell of his patented final dance. Even then ''Zorba'' can't pass for a sophisticated or dynamic Broadway musical, but there is some real compensation to be had in the warm embrace of an old friend.