"Zorba" the Greek and his merry band of ethnics danced back into town last night, stomping heartily and spewing ersatz peasant wisdom like village news bulletins.

This musical purports to tell us "What is life?!" which is really "What is Anthony Quinn!!?" Life, incidentally, is "what you do till the moment you die." Quinn, on the other hand, is Zorba, and threatens to be Zorba for as long as the public will keep paying him to dance and shrug.

Quinn seemed a bit off his game at last night's opening at the National Theatre, a few shades less larger than life than his customary charsima leads one to expect. His songs, which he croaks rather than sings, were barely audible at times, and Zorba's passion for life seemed more like a leer than lust. He is still a masterful presence, and without him "Zorba" would be just another plate of stuffed grape leaves.

This 1968 musical, which is based on the 1964 movie, which in turn was based on the novel, seems to have been assembled from the all-purpose Mediterranean ethnic kit. The characters -- except Quinn -- all have dark hair and glare, use parallel hand gestures, wear baggy pants and high boots or full skirts and tight bodices, and roll their R's. The set looks as if it were inspired by a combination of Stonehenge and the Natural Fiber Catalogue, and the music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb are heavy on rhythms that are good to stomp to. Actually, the costumes are beautiful -- cliche'd, but in fabrics with gorgeous texture and color.

sk,3 And Joseph Stein's book. Ah! The Book! The story follows -- albeit in song and dance -- Nikos Kazantzakis' original, which enters the dark world of isolated and superstitious villagers, who murder one of their own for a perceived breach of honor. The old crones of the villages, presented here as "crows" draped in black, hover like vultures over the dying Madame Hortense (played with unerring charm by Lila Kedrova), stealing her possessions after she dies. If you're wondering how a musical can deal effectively with these macabre moments, you should.

sk,2 But there are some compensations. The company, if you can get past the phony peasantry, can all sing and dance well, and they perform with polish and expertise. Paul Harmon is likable as the young American Zorba attaches himself to as life tutor; his stiffness and ever-so-trained diction seem appropriate to the character. Donna Theodore is the mysterious Leader, a Greek chorus-like personage who drops in and out of the action singing intense songs. She manages to give this absurd character some presence. Kedrova and Quinn are pros and work their wiles on the audience. Kedrova flutters and flirts as the aging coquette, becoming more pathetic as she becomes more desperate for a last chance at respectability.

And Quinn? Eh, he is both terrible and unique, like a mountain. Well, you know what they say: "A woman is like a fresh spring and man is just a passer-by." Or wait -- maybe it's "To be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble." Oh, well, that life, you know, it is a pesky old thing.

Zorba, by Joseph Stein, music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, directed by Michael Cacoyannis, supervised by Joel Grey, choreography by Graciela Daniele, set by David Chapman, costumes by Hal George, 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. At the National Theatre through Feb. 16.