Sometime after He created the heaven and the earth, the beasts of the field and the fishes of the water, God said, "Let there be Anthony Quinn." And Anthony Quinn was.
Such, at any rate, is the impression fostered by the cinema star, who, girded in the full might and majesty of his legend, is appearing at the Kennedy Center Opera House in the stage version of his most famous film role -- Zorba, the Greek. Quinn doesn't perform so much as he manifests himself before the throngs, who, from all evidence Friday night, seem to regard his presence in the flesh as tantamount to the third, if not the second, coming.
Indeed, his initial appearance in the reworked edition of the 1968 Broadway musical "Zorba," which happens to be the pretext for this visitation, is announced by a robust clap of thunder. The lights go out, and when they come up again on the waterfront of Pireus, there he is: "the man," as they say, paunchier and more grizzled than in his movie heyday, and far whiter of hair. But "the man," nonetheless.
Quinn may bark out the songs in Fred Ebb and John Kander's undistinguished score, and his participation in Graciela Daniele's equally mediocre Greek dances stops considerably short of exuberance. But he lifts a barroom table with his teeth and emerges only slightly dazed from a mine explosion that by all rights would fell a herd of buffalo. When he slaps women on their fannies, they cast such adoring eyes at him as to suggest that he could defeat the ERA with the well-aimed swat of a single hand (or a single paw).
Quinn is what he is -- bigger than life, bigger than anyone else on the stage, for that matter. At a time when Broadway is all but bereft of old-fashioned star power, he represents a throwback to the fabled days when people actually went to the theater to behold a favorite performer. It seems only fair to say that he alone is the justification for taking in (or not taking in) "Zorba." You probably know already how you feel about him; either way, he will not deceive you.
The show itself may strike you, however, as a ponderous and unimaginative retelling of the Nikos Kazantzakis novel about life and death in a not very friendly village in Crete. It wants to encourage us to revel in the moment-by-moment glories of existence. As Zorba boasts early on, every time he chews on mutton, sniffs a woman or sleeps on a flower, he does so as if it were "The First Time." But the musical also subjects its characters to a lot of misfortune, agony and bigotry. Survival is not easy in this rocky outpost, although some of the scenes in Joseph Stein's script certainly are.
The story begins with the arrival in Crete of Niko (John Hillner), a withdrawn, bookish American who has inherited an abandoned mine on the island and soon acquires, in addition, the services of the persistent Zorba, as guide, adviser and, finally, spiritual liberator. "Logic," booms Zorba to his logical charge, "is a woman's behind." "The future," he booms later, "is a pig's behind." When Niko's mine collapses in on itself, Zorba shrugs philosophically. And when a retiring young widow (Marcia Mitzman) is knifed in the village square by jealous townsmen, Zorba informs the heartbroken Niko, "The only real death is the death you die every day by not living."
You get the point. You may also get the impression that the life-affirming Zorba is something of a flim-flam artist. Have we changed so much since 1968? "Zorba" at the Kennedy Center seems not only irretrievably sexist, but about as deep as those posters proclaiming that "today is the first day of the rest of your life."
For those not transfixed by Quinn's every swagger, there is some consolation to be taken in the performance of Lila Kedrova, recreating her role as Madame Hortense from the 1964 film "Zorba the Greek." Granted, it's one of those fail-safe parts -- the aging French courtesan, dying of what sounds like consumption, lamenting the bygone years when she was pretty enough to seduce the combined admiralty of France, Russia, England and Italy. Still, Kedrova, while not much of a singer or a dancer, handles the assignment with silly, coquettish charm. Her fluttery ways are more appropriate for one half her age, but for that very reason, I suspect, they rather are sweetly and sadly moving in the long run.
Courting Madame Hortense, albeit reluctantly, Zorba is not quite the heel he is elsewhere, and when Quinn and Kedrova do their little two-step together, you may begin to think the show has a real heart, after all. Madame Hortense also gets a potentially touching moment on her deathbed, with Zorba at her side, although director Michael Cacoyannis has hoked it up with a flock of actors symbolically draped in black as carrion crows. The staging is no match for the equivalent scene in the movie, in which the village women descended upon the expiring courtesan and looted her house bare.
Cacoyannis and designer David Chapman do a lot with drapes, in fact, in an attempt to make what is basically a single-unit set of whitewashed platforms and stairs look like more than it is. The arty touches notwithstanding, this "Zorba" often has the flimsy appearance of a bus-and-truck roadshow. Should the village houses really be waving so blithely in the breeze?
Of the supporting players, Naz Edwards come across most forcefully. She plays The Leader, another symbolic character -- fate, no doubt -- who comments in song on the plot's developments. The way her body microphone emphasizes the vibrato in her voice, combined with her stark black dress, makes Edwards seem rather like a Greek Edith Piaf -- not an undesirable association under the circumstances. Hillner's Niko, however, is best described by the actor himself, when he admits to being "a sheep with glasses." The other performers don't stand out from the chalked walls in any particularly noteworthy fashion.
All of which will matter not a whit to the committed, for whom "Zorba" offers the chance to touch the hem of Quinn's rustic garments, or quite possibly catch the red carnation he hurls into the audience at curtain call. "There's one Zorba, and that Zorba I must be," Quinn sings defiantly at the end of a long evening.
Why else do you think they revived the show?
ZORBA. Book by Joseph Stein. Music by John Kander; lyrics, Fred Ebb. Directed by Michael Cacoyannis; choreography, Graciela Daniele; sets, David Chapman; costumes, Hal George; lighting, Marc B. Weiss. With Anthony Quinn, Lila Kedrova, John Hillner, Marcia Mitzman, Charles Karel, Naz Edwards, Aurelio Padron and Terry Runnels. At the Kennedy Center Opera House through Oct. 14.