East Haddam, Conn. — The Goodspeed Opera House has always had a strong commitment to new musicals, and has offered celebrated revivals of old ones. Goodspeed is where "Man of La Mancha," "Shenandoah," and "Annie" got started.
Not every new Goodspeed offering is such a hit, of course, but the one currently on the boards, "Zapata!" is not even a miss, it's a genuine fizzle. It's not that the idea of doing a musical on the life of Emiliano Zapata, the Mexican revolutionary, was a poor idea. It could have been a probing, trenchant , dramatic, insightful story of an ignorant farmer of high ideals leading men in the fight for land rights.
Instead, we get an old-fashioned Hollywood-cliche sort of red-white-and-green Mexico where intelligence is banished, where the natives sing Ay-ay-ay, where decisions are made with the snap of a finger, the hint of a song. It's TV-land, where each episode must fit neatly into 10-minute sequences (as if to allow for commercials). Glibness reigns unrestrained, people are reduced to ciphers and stooges. Allan Katz has written the book, and Harry Nilsson and Perry Botkin Jr. have written the music and lyrics.
Nilsson is a pop writer of a certain facile appeal as seen in his "The Point" a few seasons back. But he seems out of his depth here. Not only are the lyrics trite, unpoetic, without resonances or overtones, but the melodies boast mere vigor, not memorability.
Zapata is, we find out, a poor farmer. In three minutes he is convinced he can lead a revolution. During that revolution he captures Maggie, who it turns out is a floozy chanteuse (pronounce it "chantoozie") with a conscience.
Emiliano is a success. He joins with Maggie, and with Pancho Villa, gets his "guy" into the presidency, then has a few pangs of conscience himself because he is ignorant and cannot accomplish what he wants to. But he goes on with his struggle because he is an idealist, and because Maggie is at his side. We are told that he accomplished much before he was assassinated, the curtain falls, and that's about it.
Goodspeed's contributions to all this were top-notch. John Jensen's colorful sets were always atmospheric, almost like putting us inside a festive pinata. David Toser's costumes are suitably simple, and Peter M. Ehrhardt's lighting works well, as it always does.
However, choreographer Dan Siretta seems to have found little to inspire him here. The cast performs well -- trying to make something of the gaping stereotypes and utter unsubstantial roles. Bobbi Jo Lathan almost convinces that Maggie is a real creature, and Shawn Elliott has his share of moments as Zapata. The actor, known to record collectors from the "Jacques Brel" album, has run out of singing voice these days but has not lost his boyish winning ways with an audience. If Zapata were meant merely to be a charmer, then Elliott is indeed well cast.
Bert Convy has been trying to get "Zapata" into musical form for about 15 years, we learn from his biography. (We also learn that Botkin is composer/arranger for "mork and Mindy") and that Allan Katz was writer on M*A*S*H* (which, ironically, was notable for its attempts to make characters real and three dimensional). Convy's directorial ideas are ill-conceived, relying primarily on emotional setups. He goes straight for the gag and the hollow core at each and every opportunity, making trite material unbearably cloying and utterly wanting in credibility.
The creative forces behind "Zapata!" have been huddling on the West Coast (odd that they should all meet there when the show is here!) to fix and change the show. Some (or all) of those changes are said to be going in before "Zapata!" closes its run at Goodspeed. One can only guess what is being devised , and this reviewer wishes them well.