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'Zorba': back again and bursting with earthy energy; Zorba. Musical by Joseph Stein (book), Fred Ebb (lyrics), and John Kander (music). Based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. Directed by Michael Cacoyannis. Choreography by Graciela Daniele. Starring Anthony Quinn, Lila Kedrova.

By John Beaufort / October 21, 1983



New York

Anthony Quinn has been quoted as objecting strenuously to the description of ''Zorba'' as a revival. Said Mr. Quinn: ''I am Zorba.'' Having created the part in the memorable film version of the Nikos Kazantzakis novel and having brought Zorba to Broadway after a lengthy tour, the star of the revival - excuse me, arrival - may be justified in his claim. Zorba is perhaps on his way to becoming for Mr. Quinn what Tevye was to the late Zero Mostel, the King of Siam to Yul Brynner, Dolly Levi to Carol Channing, and Professor Higgins to Rex Harrison.

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''Zorba'' is not, however, a legendary musical. It is an interesting and often entertaining example of the post-Rodgers-and-Hammerstein lyric theater, particularly as influenced by Harold Prince and company. Writing in ''The World of Musical Comedy,'' Stanley Green remarked:

'' 'Zorba' (late 1968) reunited Kander and Ebb with their 'Cabaret' producer-director, Harold Prince. The musicalization of Nikos Kazantzakis's novel, however, seemed more akin to 'Fiddler on the Roof' with its larger-than-life hero and its stageful of earthy, ethnic types. . . . But the Greek peasants were a colder and more menacing lot than 'Fiddler's' open-hearted villagers, and the work was too spare and gloomy to win more than a season's run. Kander and Ebb moved with apparent ease to their Cretan surroundings, bringing to it fire, strength, humor ('No Boom-Boom'), and tenderness ('Happy Birthday' was both a childhood recollection and a threnody), colored by instrumentation that made the score sound as true to bouzouki as it did to Broadway. . . .''

Dissolve to 1983 and the Broadway Theatre. Here is Mr. Quinn giving a rambunctious, comically zestful, unabashedly virile performance as the wily Athenian who elects to educate a young Greek-American visitor in the ways of life and women. The star's growling baritone, physical vitality, and gritty charm are admirably suited to the hedonistic Zorba. Although he did not originate it on Broadway (the first Zorba was Herschel Bernardi), Mr. Quinn has placed his own unique stamp on Kazantzakis's burly rascal.

If Mr. Quinn is the definitive Zorba, then Lila Kedrova is the indispensable Mme. Hortense. Miss Kedrova is making her Broadway debut (too long delayed!) in the role that won her an Academy Award. Her delicately textured Hortense is the ideal foil for Mr. Quinn's rough-hewn philanderer. Together, they provide the emotional force and fire without which ''Zorba'' might not survive its more ponderous elements.

Introduced and forwarded from time to time by Debbie Shapiro as a belting one-woman Greek chorus, ''Zorba'' tells how its irrepressible protagonist latches onto Niko (Robert Westenberg), a bookish young American who has inherited a mine on Crete. Zorba immediately elects himself foreman and general factotum of Niko's mine reopening project.

While Zorba works his rough charms on the susceptible Hortense, Niko falls hesitantly in love with a mysterious widow (Taro Meyer), a Cretan beauty who has scornfully rejected all local suitors. The love affair ends tragically. With a suicide, a murder, and a long deathbed scene, ''Zorba'' makes more than a modest bid for honors in the genre of what somebody once called ''the musical serious.''

The production at the Broadway has been staged by Michael Cacoyanniscq, who won an Oscar for ''Zorba the Greek.'' The firm Cacoyannis guidance probably explains why the Cretan villagers of the tale possess somewhat more ethnic authenticity than is sometimes encountered among the peasantry of Broadway musicals. The ''Zorba'' singers and dancers are fairly bursting with earthy Mediterranean energy. The solo and ensemble vocal work is consistently impressive. And so is the overall musical performance conducted by Randolph Mauldin.

Folklorists will know better than I how genuinely choreographer Graciela Daniele's dances adhere to Greek origins. Miss Daniele has in any case created all the movement possible within the shallow space allotted by David Chapman's settings. Mr. Chapman evolves the Cretan geography by the use of precipitous mobile stairs and backdrops suggesting stark white cliffs. ''Zorba'' has been picturesquely costumed by Hal George. Lighting designer Marc B. Weiss illumines the stage in the Broadway equivalent of a bright Mediterranean sun.

Kander and Ebb provided a serviceable score for ''Zorba,'' though none of its songs seem to have achieved the long-term popularity of some of their other collaborations.