"Anything I know how to do, I do perfect! Anything I don't know how to do, I do very good!," brags the libidinous old Greek philosopher at the center of "Zorba!"
Lucky for the pretentious and silly semi-staged revival of the 1968 musical at Encores! this weekend, Zorba's boast is made here by John Turturro.
The actor, one of the least likely heirs to a boisterous and he-manly role identified with Anthony Quinn, doesn't know how to sing or dance. But he has a lusty yet innocent grin that's "very good" at helping make the character's unpleasant qualities seem almost charming.
To one who never saw the 1968 original or the 1983 revival, the appeal of this self-serious musical is a mystery. Adapted by Joseph Stein after the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, not the 1964 "Zorba the Greek" movie starring Quinn, the show has an almost ludicrously uncertain tone. Earthy-peasant musical cliches clash with appalling mob ugliness, resulting in undeserved tragedies we are somehow meant to understand through Zorba's "live for today" homilies.
The production -- oddly over-staged for an Encores! weekend -- is directed with a surprising ponderousness by Walter Bobbie ("Chicago"). And yes, the score is by John Kander and Fred Ebb, the masters of sardonic sophistication behind "Chicago," "Cabaret" and this season's Tony-nominated "The Visit." Except for a few moving songs, including the biting "Happy Birthday" for the aging hotel owner (the marvelous Zoë Wanamaker), the score is mired in pseudo-Greek melodies and treacly sentimentality about butterflies taken too soon from cocoons and women being "like a fresh spring."
The love of women is the theme here, embodied by Zorba, who worships women but doesn't care much about them. Santino Fontana has the right earnestness and vocal strength for Niko, the young American who has inherited a mine in Crete and, preposterously, always wears a three-piece suit and tie. Elizabeth A. Davis is haunting, as always, as the horrifically-abused widow.
Choreography by Josh Rhodes has lots of self-important stomping and folkloric leather slapping, interrupted by push-ups and half-cartwheels on furniture.
"Life is what you do while you are waiting to die," scolds the one-woman Greek earth-goddess chorus, impressively sung by Marin Mazzie. Equally impressive is her delivery of these lectures with a straight face.
WHERE New York City Center, 131 W. 55th St., through Sunday
INFO $30-$115; 212-581-1212; nycitycenter.org