Musical numbers: “A Pirate’s Life,” “Viva the People,” “I’ll Cut Him to Ribbons,” “Always the Bridesmaids,” “Say No to Your Heart,” “When the Buzzards Come Back to Capistrano,” “Wanting You,” “Be My Love,” “Give in to Me,” “Temptation,” “Zorro,” “I Cannot Tell a Lie,” “Oh, Moon Man,” “Serenade,” “Ave Maria.”
At its sporadic best, “Zorro: The Musical” is a high camp hoot, a merry mix of Saturday matinee swashbuckling and mock-operetta romanticism. But the recent world premiere production by Houston’s Theatre Under the Stars is very much a work in progress and will need considerable trimming, revising and stylistic rethinking if the show is to have any future as a regional theater staple.
Something of a crazy-quilt hybrid, the show has a tongue-in-cheek book by Jim Bernhard and director Frank M. Young, lyrics by Bernhard and Randy Rogel, original music by Rogel — and musical themes cribbed from Bizet, Debussy, Dvorak, Puccini, Schubert, Smetana, Tchaikovsky and Wagner. But wait, there’s more: Young and his collaborators have also tossed four borrowed songs into the madcap mix — two from Sigmund Romberg operettas (“Wanting You” and “Serenade”) and two more from old movies (“Be My Love,” “Temptation”). There’s also a dead-serious, overly extended rendition of “Ave Maria” that is show-stopping in the worst sense of the term.
With more than a nod in the direction of “The Desert Song,” this version of the “Zorro” mythos has the masked avenger joining forces with a band of pirates to battle a corrupt governor in 1820 Spanish California. When he isn’t busy buckling swashes and stirringly speechifying, our hero secretly woos the beautiful Margarita (Susan Powell), daughter of wealthy landowner Don Carlos Pulido (Jack Ritschel).
Unfortunately, Margarita has been betrothed to a man she does not love: Captain Ramon de la Guerra (Alberto Stevans), the preening Spanish officer who’s obsessed with capturing Zorro. Even more unfortunately, Captain Ramon is closely allied with the amoral Don Antonio de los Reyes (Don Gardner), the governor who wants to blame Zorro for his own high crimes and misdemeanors.
The unevenness of the TUTS production is best exemplified by the lead performance of Richard White, who essays the dual role of Zorro, the cunning fox , and Don Diego, the clueless fop. Despite suffering a partially incapacitating leg injury during previews, White proved to be a dashing and dauntless hero as the original man in black during the reviewed performance.
Better still, he has the confident and compelling pipes to carry off rousing versions of “Be My Love” and “Wanting You” with the equally talented (and appropriately attractive) Powell. As Don Diego, however, White minces and flounces and sounds very much like a bad imitation of Billy Crystal doing Fernando Lamas. The shtick comes perilously close to being an ethnic slur, without the saving grace of being amusing.
A different sort of excess is evidenced by Ira Hawkins as Redbeard, the hearty pirate chief with a penchant for needlepoint. Hawkins simply tries too hard, and the effort is too obvious. The same could be said of Randy Rogel and Lillian Graff as two blatantly anachronistic Vaudevillians who wander through the proceedings. On the other hand, these two cut-ups get a chance to shine while performing the show’s best original number, “I Cannot Tell a Lie,” as entertainment during the governor’s masked ball.
Other supporting performances range from seriously melodramatic (Powell, Gardner and Stevans) to flamboyantly farcical. Carol Swarbrick falls into the latter category as Dona Elena, the governor’s predatory wife, whose attempts to seduce Rogel are repeatedly interrupted by Graff. Rosalia Villard makes the most of her moments as a sultry spitfire named Carlotta.
The spectacular sets by Michael Anania (including a strikingly Moorish mansion for Don Carlos) and the vibrant costumes by Jonathan C. Bixby and Gregory Gale add to the polish and panache of the TUTS production. Even so, the bumpy pacing and less-than-scintillating fight scenes (especially in the second act) too often keep the show earthbound just when it should soar.
All in all, a promising beginning, but by no means a finished product.