Maybe it's the memories of all those admirals she's entertained or the endless spinning of her favorite record "Vive la Difference," but whenever Madame Hortense, the aged French courtesan magnificently played by Judy Kaye, takes center stage, time momentarily stops and yesterday doesn't seem all that far away.
This turns out to be quite a blessing for the Reprise! concert staging of "Zorba," the 1968 musical that has aged about as well as month-old souvlaki. The show -- with book by Joseph Stein, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb -- was originally produced and directed by Harold Prince, who was already the undisputed king of Broadway.
In addition to his myriad other credits, Prince had just produced the ethnic blockbuster "Fiddler on the Roof" and the concept musical "Cabaret," which were the parents of this hybrid copycat -- and the basis of many unflattering comparisons.
Of course, there's another more obvious source. Adapted from Nikos Kazantzakis' novel "Zorba the Greek," which gave rise to Michael Cacoyannis' still relatively fresh 1964 motion picture starring Anthony Quinn and Alan Bates, "Zorba" the musical piggybacked on "Zorba" the movie's phenomenal commercial success. Imagine anyone trying such a lowdown thing today!
Unfortunately, the show exaggerates the film's overcooked Mediterranean philosophy (a carpe diem dish doused with red wine and served on grape leaves) without preserving its big-screen benefits. Chief among these are the sun-drenched cinematography that earned the picture one of its three Oscars and the earthy sensuality of Quinn, who delivers a performance that is like Anna Magnani shot up with testosterone.
There's a reason there hasn't been a major Broadway revival of "Zorba" since 1983, when Quinn and his movie costar Lila Kedrova tried out their film parts onstage in the work's second major New York outing. The music, sung with the passion of the world's biggest, fattest Greek wedding, never really makes much of an impression. With the exception of Hortense's poignantly peppy death scene in which she sings "Happy Birthday" before retiring to that great brothel in the sky, all the numbers really do is assure the audience what a great, clamorous time everyone's having.
The story, narrated as well as acted out by a cast of entertainers sitting in a semi-circle, revolves around the bookish Greek American Nikos (here played by Stan Chandler), who on his way to Crete to restore an old family mine hooks up with Zorba (Marc Kudisch), a salty, lovable Socrates of the people who teaches him the art of living while you can.
"Life is what you do while you're waiting to die." The show's daring opening lyric, buoyantly belted by the chorus leader (Camille Saviola in a brazen -- OK, vulgar -- powerhouse performance), captures the darkness tingeing the get-it-while-you-can sentimentality.
Tragedy, it's worth remembering, strikes not just once but two times here. But the moral, for those insensible to lessons pounded into their heads, is that life, despite its inevitable sadness, is abundantly worth it, so let's all enjoy another piece of baklava before dancing to the joy and grief of our days. Opa!
With his lively cast, David Lee's production allows us to experience the musical as though it were fully staged. And though it may not convince many that the show is in need of a major revival, it reminds us of a part of our musical theater tradition that's not without its dated charms.
Kudisch, the rising musical theater star, plays Zorba, the role originated onstage by Herschel Bernardi and later essayed by Quinn (the face of the character for having immortalized him on film). Though he has a few gray whiskers and can sing beautifully (too beautifully, actually), Kudisch is still about a decade too young for the part and has to work extremely hard to lend the impression of lusty paternal wisdom exhaustingly acquired.
Kaye, on the other hand, is perfect as Hortense. In fact, if there's any reason to consider dusting off the show, it's solely to find a vehicle for her resplendent talent, which captivated Broadway earlier this season in "Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins," a tour de force performance that should win her a Tony nomination later this month.
Hortense has an intimidating acting pedigree: Kedrova, who was so memorable in the film and Broadway revival, is one of the few actors to win an Oscar and Tony for the same part. Yet Kaye delicately allows us to experience the character anew by treating her not as hilarious eccentric but a lonely, sensual woman who knows that the finishing line is near.
Rejuvenated by her love for Zorba, Kaye's Hortense is also primed for another bout of loss. Rapture and sorrow are entwined in her ridiculous flirtations, which of course aren't ridiculous at all but the heartbreakingly true expression of the show's otherwise overheated spirit.
Where: Freud Playhouse, UCLA , 405 Hilgard Ave., Westwood
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays
Ends: May 14
Price: $70 to $75
Contact: (310) 825-2101
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Book by Joseph Stein. Music by John Kander. Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Directed by David Lee. Musical direction by Gerald Sternbach. Choreographed by Dan Mojica. Sets by Evan A. Bartoletti. Lighting by Tom Ruzika. Costumes by Heather Carleton.