Memories of Melody Top: Remembering Milwaukee’s Summer Stock Theatre

Called "a beautiful production" by several patrons who saw it, ZORBA offered a nearly perfect ensemble worthy of a Broadway production. Headlined by international opera star Giorgio Tozzi in the title role, the cast included Ed Evanko (fresh from the first national tour of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC) as Nikos; Zoya Leporska (one of Bob Fosse's first assistant choreographers) as Hortense; Jana Robbins (a standout from the tour and Broadway revival of GOOD NEWS) as the Leader of the Chorus; and Didi Hitt (a native of DePere, Wisconsin and future Aldonza in MAN OF LA MANCHA at Melody Top) as the Widow.

Production Photos from ZORBA, August 5 – 17, 1975

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Tozzi Gets His ZORBA Down Right

By Michael H. Drew of the Journal Staff, Wednesday, August 6, 1975

ZORBA, which danced into the Melody Top on winged feet Tuesday night, tries hard to be more than a musical comedy about a free-living, free-loving Greek. Joseph Stein's 1968 Broadway adaptation of the novel and movie ZORBA THE GREEK aspires also toward being contemporary Greek tragedy.

In its best moments Tuesday, director Stuart Bishop's staging captured both laughter and pathos in the shifting Mediterranean moods of Nikos Kazantzakis' story. Another near capacity tent audience, 1,900, awarded Top newcomer Giorgio Tozzi its familiar ovation.

The Metropolitan Opera basso, making his tent debut, deserved it. He captured Zorba's peasant philosophy with the comedic timing and booming bass-baritone that could make Top audiences forget Earl Wrightson.

On Broadway, Harold Prince's staging dynamics and Ron Field's folk dances kept the character study flowing like good retsina wine. Here, James Smock's chorus swirled winningly to the bouzouki-type sounds from Don Yap's orchestra. And the company had many major scenes under control: Zorba's courting of the widow Hortense (Zoya Leporska), vulturous crones circling her death bed, and others.

But, at times, the principals' lines, with and without accents, were Greek to me. And the narrative sometimes lagged and leaped unevenly. Much of that problem is built into a libretto that asks us to absorb a romantic lead's murder, a mine disaster and another lead's natural death during some frantic second-act plotting.

ZORBA's comedy springs nicely from character, but its philosophizing sometimes has the ring of Broadway twaddle: "Life is what you do while you're waiting to die." Though Yap & Co. did their best, the Kander-Ebb score isn't nearly up to their CABARET level.

As Zorba's boss, friend and straight man, Top favorite Ed Evanko spent much of the evening listening to lesser singers. But he made the most of two chances to unsheathe his vibrant tenor and turned in some of his strongest acting here.

Nudging ZORBA along as chorus leader, stunning brunette Jana Robbins obviously won over the customers. I'd have liked her much better if she had softened and sweetened her overworked alto.

Ms. Leporska, another tent newcomer, could have used some of Ms. Robbins' extra projection. A portable microphone didn't help much. But her well-matured charm generally came through.

Giorgio Tozzi as Zorba at Melody Top Theatre

Assistant stage manager Gary Bruski captured this "backstage" image of Giorgio Tozzi.


ZORBA Alive, Well at Melody Top

By Ron Legro, the Milwaukee Sentinel, Wednesday, August 6, 1975

Poignance and awkwardness filled the Melody Top Tuesday night as a tuneful, melancholy production of ZORBA opened a two-week run.

The poignance was carefully engineered. But the awkwardness wasn't always intended.

Joseph Stein's libretto about an aging, larger-than-life Greek who refuses to roll over was often touching.

But Fred Ebb's anecdotal lyrics are what bind together the play's often tenuous plot, and in the speaking parts, a hesitancy seemed to prevail among the cast.

Perhaps director Stuart Bishop chose a deliberate style.

Luckily, a well-conceived characterization by Giorgio Tozzi in the title role helped make the play come alive.

Tozzi made Zorba comic when the Greek gadfly tries to seduce a tired French woman.

The audience enjoyed Tozzi's facial grimaces as Zorba is continually interrupted by a broken phonograph.

When Tozzi was not setting the tempo, Jana Robbins, who led the Greek chorus, employed her strong, sassy voice with great effectiveness.

Miss Robbins, in the chorus, began the evening with "Life Is," one of the better-arranged and choreographed numbers.

Sustaining that pace throughout the performance proved to be a challenge the cast did not always meet.

Giorgio Tozzi and Zoya Leporska in ZORBA at Melody Top Theatre

Giorgio Tozzi as Zorba and Zoya Leporska as Hortense in a touching moment from ZORBA (1975). Photo from the collection of Barrett Hong.


ZORBA Cast of Characters

Manolakas:Roy Neuner
Fivos:Dan Webber
Konstandi:Robert Alton
Sofia:Nancy McCloud
Marina:Joan Carvelle
Athena:Susan Rush
Lukas:Clyde Laurents
Zorba:Giorgio Tozzi
Nikos:Ed Evanko
Hortense:Zoya Leporska
Panayotis:Eddie Dudek
Old Man:Wayne Mattson
Pavli:John Ganzer
Mavrodani:Thomas Ruisinger
The Widow:Didi Hitt
Mimiko:Barrett Hong
Father Zahoria:Barry Thomas
The Leader of the Chorus:Jana Robbins
Belly Dancer:Judith Ann Conte

Ensemble: Robert Alton, Mib Bramlette, Joan Carvelle, Judith Ann Conte, Eddie Dudek, Tracy Friedman, John Ganzer, Didi Hitt, Barrett Hong, Sharon Little, Wayne Mattson, Nancy McCloud, Roy Neuner, Susan Rush, Barry Thomas, Dan Webber.

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