Replete with arch putdowns and audience-nudging one-liners, tuner “Zorro” tries to put the camp in “gypsy encampment.” Unfortunately, it also bangs on about honor, identity and dignity and takes itself so seriously it kills off its most winning personality — a tragedy for both the remaining characters and the audience’s enjoyment. Although tremendous flamenco stomping to music by the Gipsy Kings is the loudest part of the experience, it’s a close call between that and the sound of a show falling between two stools.
In this version of the much-novelized and filmed tale of the legendary man in a mask, we’re in California which, given all the talk about how people are really feeling, makes sense. The dateline for this Los Angeles story is, however, 1805.
New ruler Don Alejandro (Jonathan Newth in a thankless role) is sorting out his succession so he sends son Diego (Matt Rawle) back to Spain to attend the university “to learn duty and responsibility.” He leaves behind childhood friends Luisa (Emma Williams) and Ramon (Adam Levy), with the latter ominously given charge of the army.
So imagine Luisa’s horror when, three years later, she goes to Spain and discovers Diego singing with a touring band of gypsies complete with regulation layered skirts, torrid curls, earrings, caravan and heaps of flamenco opportunities.
Dampening his fire, she blurts out he must go home because his father is dead and sadistic Ramon is in charge. Diego’s response to her explanation — “I have never been so moved” — wins the prize for the clunkiest line of the year, although it faces stiff competition throughout from the dialogue of Stephen Clark’s overstated and underwritten book scenes.
Unbeknownst to Luisa, Diego raids the dressing-up box — I’m not making this up — and asks his eye-flashing, mane-tossing, man-trapping girlfriend Inez (Lesli Margherita) for a mask and cape to exact his revenge. “What do you plan to do,” she asks, “entertain him to death?”
The action proceeds through a largely tension-free scenario of good vs. evil with love story attached via hidden-identity, caped-crusader plotting.
So far, so silly, but the show runs aground because it simultaneously begs audiences to invest in it emotionally, particularly in the succession of heartfelt but anodyne ballads. Teary Williams goes for broke with her 11 o’clock number “Man Behind the Mask,” but, with no dramatic substance to underpin it, it comes across as well-sung, empty emoting.
According to an underused and unnecessary narrator — as portentous as he is aged — “every gypsy has a story to tell.” Peculiarly, that contradicts the spirit of a show built not on individuality but on collective dance power: Full-blooded, company flamenco is wisely whipped up whenever possible.
Unsurprisingly, everything lifts off with the percussive rush of the biggest Gipsy Kings hits. “Djobi Djoba” is the highpoint, a grand-scale number danced with wildly infectious, foot-stamping zest by the company, many of whom are Spanish flamenco experts.
Rafael Amargo’s choreography has authenticity and passion to burn, but it lacks dramatic structuring. In the other big number, “Bamboleo,” the music drops away completely to be replaced by the raw power of dancers’ crying, clapping and stamping. But instead of harnessing that energy to drive the remainder of the number to climax, director Christopher Renshaw allows it to come to a temporary halt for applause, at which point energy plummets.
The other major problem facing the show is that the Garrick Theater is a 701-seat playhouse, not a large tuner theater. Its proscenium arch, closer to a square than a rectangle, badly cramps Tom Piper’s triple-height, bleached wood standing set. This has serious repercussions for the action.
Trying to stage swinging rope entrances and sword-fights on a stage as tiny as this is like throwing the javelin in your bedroom. Fight director Terry King deserves credit for pulling off routines in the space, but the admiration is for the cast not tripping over one another rather than for the routines’ raw excitement. Danger is nowhere because while Renshaw’s production wants to be a swashbuckler, the buckles are far too tight.
Rawle adds a strong tenor voice and a pleasingly handsome presence to Diego/Zorro, but he’s dwarfed by Margherita’s Inez who borrows shamelessly from Chita Rivera circa “West Side Story” to steal every scene she’s in. The most surprising performance comes from Levy who finds unexpected depth in villainous Ramon.
Worryingly for the producers, it’s not as if the real Gipsy Kings have retired. A week ago, they played U.K. dates on a 2008 world tour. That, together with mixed local reviews and the imbalance between high running costs and the venue’s limited seating suggests this may be a case of “Zorro”: wrong numbers.