BETHLEHEM – Niko would have brought an umbrella to the rainy opening night of “Zorba” at the open-air The Gary-The Olivia Theater at the Abbey of Regina Laudis. Zorba would have danced in the puddles.
This sums up the difference between the two male leads in this 1968 musical (revived in 1983 with Anthony Quinn reprising his movie role), based on the 1946 novel Zorba the Greek by Cretan author Nikos Kazantzakis. Niko (Maurio Hines), the author’s alter ego, is an uptight former schoolteacher who is en route to Crete to reopen an abandoned lignite mine he has inherited. He forms a partnership and deep friendship with Zorba (Thomas Camm), a footloose jack-of-al-ltrades, who tries to get Niko to open himself up to life’s boundless possibilities.
Zorba strikes up a liaison with their landlady, Madame Hortense (Alika Hope), while Niko is attracted to – but hesitates to pursue – the aloof Widow (Sophia Sapronov). In a formulaic scene common in bromances, Zorba persuades Niko to seize his opportunity and woo the Widow.
Spoiler alert: Both relationships end badly, but the friendship between Zorba and Niko survives. In a moving scene, Niko even learns to dance despite tragedy.
Director/choreographer Sally Camm told the Transcript that she considered several musicals for this season, “but ‘Zorba’ kept bubbling to the top of the list.” She said producer Hal Prince originally pitched the project to the songwriting team Kander & Ebb (“Cabaret,” “Chicago”), who at first turned it down. Then Mr. Prince conceived the notion of including a Greek chorus, in the character of the townspeople’s Leader (Nadya Incarnacion in this production), someone who could comment on the rights and wrongs of the characters’ actions. That, and a book by Joseph Stein (“Fiddler on the Roof,” 1964), convinced Kander & Ebb to come on board.
Ms. Incarnacion may be the most versatile and polished of all the performers in this production, outshining both male leads and both female leads with her graceful movements, warm smile and sweet singing voice. The talented Mr. Camm makes every attempt to play to the audience with his devil-may-care attitude, but he just misses making a connection beyond the fourth wall. When the leading actor’s timing is off, it has a ripple effect. Few performers on this opening night took the time to gauge audience response.
Kudos to the six-member musical ensemble, led by keyboardist Miguel Campinho and featuring Stavros Hadzisavidis on the bouzouki, a mandolin-like instrument of Greek origin. Their accompaniment is pitchperfect in “Life Is” (“what you do till the moment you die”), “The First Time” and the rousing “No BoomBoom” (Madame Hortense’s admonition to male visitors to her room).
“Zorba” is a life-affirming story that, unfortunately, does not allow the title character to grow or learn. He seems to have been born with his philosophy fully developed. No other character tries to change him, and despite the fact that he is a type whose role is to inspire others to be like him, he is not without flaws. He is a womanizer, a spendthrift (with Niko’s money!) and a deceiver. But hey! He’s cool, right? And he can dance. Let’s not quibble. Life is for dancing.
Oh, and Zorba would not have had to dance in the puddles; the rain let up as the curtain went up.
“Zorba” earned a total of two Tonys, four Drama Desk Awards and one Theatre World Award in its two Broadway runs. A planned 2011-12 revival never came to be.
The Clay & Wattles Theater Company’s production in Bethlehem will continue Aug. 5, 6, 12 and 13 at 7:30 p.m. and Aug. 7 and 14 at 2:30 p.m. at 249 Flanders Rd. For ticket information, call 203-273-5669 or go to thegarytheolivia.com.