Delightful `Zorba'; `Nightingale' eccentric Seattle dance troupe

Anthony Quinn seems born to the role as the vigorous, great-hearted Zorba who teaches a shy American student how to live. He spins tall tales, woos extravagantly, then shoots out a line of great simplicity. If flimsy plots, shrill singing, and atrocious miking have turned you off musicals, ``Zorba'' (playing at the Shubert Theatre) will restore your enthusiasm. Hearty as moussaka, pungent as feta, it sings with vitality.

Everything you go to musicals for is here: a story including comedy, love, and tragedy; some of the best, most full-bodied singing I've heard this year; colorful costumes (Hal George); a stark stone set (David Chapman); dramatic choreography (Graciela Daniele).

But what really knocks you out are the performances. After starring in the film version and the original Broadway musical, as well as two years on the road and on Broadway with this revival, Anthony Quinn seems born to the role as the vigorous, great-hearted peasant who teaches a shy American student how to live. He spins tall tales, woos extravagantly, then shoots out a line of great simplicity. It's refreshing to see a part embraced so thoroughly that all the facets shine.

And he meets his match with the Academy Award-winning Lila Kedrova as Mme. Hortense, the woman who has lived as fully as he. Tiny as a sparrow, she prances around in frothy dresses and a parasol -- and rapidly pummels his arm when he gets too fresh. Director Michael Cacoyannis (who also directed the original film and stage versions) gives both characters a whole repertoire of delightful gestures and voices. If John Hillner, as the student, was a bit too stiff and WASP-looking to be completely convincing as a Greek-American, he certainly sang well, and his awakening to life was a lot of fun. Naz Edwards, as the Greek chorus leader, was powerful, and Taro Meyer sang beautifully as the widow whom Niko falls in love with. Book is by Joseph Stein, adapted from the novel by Kikos Kazantzakis. Music and lyrics are by John Kander and Fred Ebb.

The unfortunate thing is just when you thought it was safe to return to the theater, ``Zorba'' will be gone. Through March 10.

The Mark Morris Dance Group, a Seattle company that has had rave reviews in New York, thumped its way into the hearts of the Dance Umbrella audience over the weekend. Morris's choreography is so plain it looks at first as if the company doesn't know how to dance. On second glance you're even less sure about some of them (like many postmodern choreographers, Morris uses some nondancers for an unpolished look), but by then you're so fascinated you just want to see what comes next. The footfalls are not the meaningful stamps of modern dancers showing the world that the lighter-than-air ballerina is an illusion. These thuds come from people who have to get somewhere fast and don't have time to explain.

Morris's work is eccentric but earnest. Its success has to do with acting. Teri Weksler, dancing to Erik Satie songs in ``Bijoux,'' admires imaginary jewels on her hands, prances one leg away from the path she is dancing along and suddenly follows it, puts her arm around the back of her head, puts her hand over her mouth, and pulls herself through a turn by the mouth. Even when she's flailing her arms and her feet splat on the floor, she looks so enraptured we hate to laugh at her -- so we laugh even harder. Her head tipped back in abandon, she makes us believe she's unaware of our presence and we're spying on a complicated dialogue very few people have the stamina to conduct with themselves.

Mark Morris is the one you know knows how to dance. In ``Love, You Have Won,'' he seems to trip at every step as he leaps across the floor. He rocks his body like a mermaid's as the overamplified voice in the Vivaldi cantata wavers through an arpeggio. He dances as though he were putting the whole thing together before your eyes, not just performing it. The rest of his dancers seem to be concentrating on just getting through it. There's a difference. When Morris and Weksler dance, you eagerly work along with them. The rest of the company staggered past my attention span.

Meanwhile, at the Wang Center, the Boston Ballet danced ``Serenade'' clearly, which is the best way to let this gem shine. A lot goes on at once, but so smoothly it doesn't seem hectic. The corps was blissfully at ease. It's hard to believe that this ballet, Balanchine's first in the United States, was made in 1934. During a romantic duet, Elaine Bauer ran upstage and, instead of rushing ahead to catch her, Donn Edwards ran with her. When she changed directions and leaped forward, he just held his hand out for her to push off from. The whole ensemble brought out that independence, moving as if lifted and propelled by the Tchaikovsky music rather than mere muscles.

``The Best of Sleeping Beauty'' looked like the film ``That's Dancin'!'' -- great moments, piled hastily on top of each other. But Marie-Christine Mouis gave full value as Princess Aurora. She was steady as a rock in the Rose Adagio, if a bit severe for a 16-year-old with four suitors. Frank Augustyn as Prince Florimund showed strength and speed in leaping and turning, but he didn't take off. He stopped between stunts rather than dancing through them. This made him look heavy, when he was actually doing some quite princely work.

Like the recent British import ``A Pack of Lies,'' Trinity Square Repertory Company's ``And a Nightingale Sang . . . ,'' by C. P. Taylor, takes a political situation, then basically ignores it, focusing instead on the lives of the people it touches. In this case it's World War II, which wages ``out there'' somewhere. Except for an air raid, ration coupons, and Spam sandwiches, the war never really clobbers the lives of a Newcastle family. Except that it alters forever the traditional course of romance. That's pretty substantial. The war brings the lead, an older, homely sister, her first sweetheart. Later, she gains a sense of independence. But the price of it is the shattering of traditional morals. To her sister, it brings a sudden husband, but allows her to get to know him only during leaves.

The play is strongest when it focuses on their struggles; much more could be made of it. But the rest of the play splinters into farce. Each daft family member has a little concern to stew over -- grandfather trying to get the family together for his dog's funeral, superstitious mother always running to her statue of Our Lady, younger sister agonizing over decisions. It's a calculatedly cute ``You Can't Take It With You Goes to Newcastle.'' The war seems almost a plot convenience.

Cynthia Strickland is marvelous as Helen. Her wide, cheerful face is just made for the smiles that embody Helen's resilient good humor. Although she smiles a bit too much, she conveys pluck, practicality, and wistfulness -- very much like England itself. Becca Lish, as the sister, plays yet again another whining young sexpot, but does it well. William Damkoehler, as Helen's beau, has some nice moments in the love scenes, but is usually stiff, and so is his dialect. Peter Gerety directs the romantic scenes gently, the farce with occasional numbing frenzy. Ends March 17.

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