Anthony Quinn does not deliver half-hearted performances.

He’ll tell you that himself, as he did at a recent press conference, patiently explaining to insistent interviewers that he is not tired of playing Zorba the Greek, despite more than a thousand stage performances and his film portrayal of the character developed by novelist Nikos Kazantzakis.

But it is far more satisfying to see for yourself, by watching Quinn at work in the current tour of the musical “Zorba.” He will perform through Sunday at the San Diego Civic Theatre, the first of San Diego Playgoer’s three-play summer series.

“Each time is the first time,” as Zorba woos Madame Hortense--the fading French flower so fragilely portrayed by Lila Kedrova, who won Tony and Oscar honors for her originating performances on Broadway and in the 1965 film, “Zorba the Greek.”


The phrase holds true for Quinn and Kedrova’s performances. They are well-practiced but fresh, glowing with an obvious love for the people they play and the people who come to watch.

After 20 years, Quinn said, he still has much to learn from Zorba. In retrospect, he thinks he was too young at 50 to play the Greek peasant, whose passion for life still causes the actor to pause, to reconsider his own approach to life, and death.

The musical, originally directed by Michael Cacoyannis (who directed the film version) and supervised for the tour by Joel Grey, was written by Joseph Stein (“Fiddler on the Roof”), with lyrics by Fred Ebb and music by John Kander.

A few story details have been altered to fit the stage, but fans of the movie won’t be disappointed. What the musical lacks in lavishness it makes up for in attention to the spirit and richness of the tale.

This production doesn’t skimp on talent. Energetic Greek dances are expected, but the dazzling vocal skills of Donna Theodore, as a choral narrator called The Leader, are a thrilling surprise. Further satisfaction comes from a sensitive performance by Paul Harman as Niko, the bookish young man Zorba adopts and bursts out of his intellectual shell, drawing him into the Greek’s celebration of life: good, bad, ugly--and free.

There is very little to disappoint in this production, the only real irritation being the Civic Theatre’s marginal adequacy as a place to view theater, with so many seats buried in lofty corners distant from the electricity on stage. But any suffering from craned necks is far outweighed by this opportunity to watch Anthony Quinn deliver Zorba’s spiritual gifts.

The San Diego Playgoer Series XII continues at the Civic Theatre June 4-8, with Mary Martin and Carol Channing appearing in the comedy, “Legends!”

Keene Curtis and Peter Marshall will follow in “La Cage aux Folles,” Aug. 5-10. “ZORBA”

Musical based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. Book by Joseph Stein. Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Music by John Kander. Originally directed by Michael Cacoyannis. Production supervised by Joel Grey. Choreography by Graciela Daniele. Musical direction by Al Cavaliere. With Anthony Quinn, Lila Kedrova, Paul Harman, Angelina Fiordellisi, Donna Theodore, Charles Karel, Aurelio Padron, David Brummel, Frank Desal and Thomas David Scalise. Through June 1 at Civic Theatre, 202 C St., San Diego. Presented by San Diego Playgoers.