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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Flamenco music provides stirring counterpoint to Alliance's 'Zorro'

MAN IN BLACK: Nicholas Carriere and Adam Jacobs in Zorro
The swashbuckling musical Zorro, playing at the Alliance Theatre through May 5, goes such a long way to incorporate the music of the Gipsy Kings into the iconic adventure story, the show becomes a prime example of a detour that's worth the trip.

The sword-wielding, Z-obsessed freedom fighter has undergone multiple pop-culture iterations over the years, but began with a serialized pulp novel in 1919. Frequently set in the pueblo of Los Angeles in the early 19th century, Zorro follows the derring-do of a dashing swordsman who helps secure Mexico's independence from Spain. Zorro's Mexican exploits easily intertwine with the flamenco music traditions of Spain, which the Gipsy Kings popularized with pop inflections beginning in the late '80s (even though many of the group's original members were born in France).

At times Zorro, based on a book and lyrics by Stephen Clark, seems to take a roundabout way to incorporate gypsy characters in the story, but the musical provides such an abundance of impassioned melodies and thrilling stage effects that complaints about its contrivances and lack of substance seem beside the point.

A childhood prologue introduces three main characters, including Diego and Ramon, sons of the local alcalde, or magistrate, played by Mark Kincaid. The stern but fair alcalde manages to disappoint both sons by tapping younger Diego as his successor and sending him off to study at the "academy" in Spain. A decade later, Diego (Adam Jacobs) has fallen in love with gypsy culture and become a hedonistic street magician. His childhood sweetheart Luisa (Andrea Goss) tracks him down, but their joyful reunion turns sorrowful with the news of his father's death. Diego travels back home, bringing along some of his gypsy pals, including the saucy Inez (Natascia Diaz).

Back in Los Angeles, he discovers that Ramon (Nicholas Carriere) has become a merciless dictator, so Diego plots to thwart his brother's tyranny. By night, he fights for the oppressed as a masked do-gooder dressed in black. By day, to cast suspicion away from himself, he behaves like a frivolous wastrel in earrings and feathered hats. (The musical comes this close to calling Diego's foppish alter ego a gay blade.) Luisa begins falling in love with Zorro while finding Diego's cowardly behavior disgusting, yet he refuses to tell her the truth, leading to several numbers about love denied, nicely sung by the pair.

The odd thing about the musical is how incidental to the story Zorro becomes once he dons the black mask. Zorro puts the action plot on hold for long stretches to stage some hot-blooded musical interludes. Two of the highlights, "Bamboleo" and "Djobi Djoba," repurpose hit songs from the Gipsy Kings' eponymous album from 1988. Flamenco music, with its fast-strumming guitars, rhythmic hand-claps and rat-a-tat foot-stomps, has an innate power to raise the heart rate. Diaz's physical and vocal flourishes anchor the numbers, while her acting combines brazen sexuality with sardonic humor along the lines of Bebe Neuwirth.

At times, Zorro relies on wearying humor involving squeaky-voiced priests and cowardly soldiers, but Jacobs still proves a funny, ingratiating performer. He makes fine use of a good running joke in which he tries to give his alter ego a cool nickname, but "Zorro" is the one that sticks. Carriere attempts to invest Ramon with as much evil charisma as possible, but the character's personality flaws, rooted in sibling rivalry and daddy issues, prevent the role from becoming a particularly intimidating villain, so Ramon wears out his welcome early on.

Director Christopher Renshaw puts Zorro's emphasis on spectacle and certainly doesn't short-change the audience. (My 10-year-old was over the moon by the show's end.) Stage magic cleverly enhances Zorro's feats of bravery: Giant props tumble, swords clash and pyrotechnics blaze when least expected. (Jacobs reportedly burned his hands in a fiery mishap during rehearsal.) At times Zorro seems to alternate between a Vegas-worthy adventure play and a Gipsy Kings jukebox musical, and with so many theatrical fireworks, the audience won't be making any zzz's.

Zorro. Through May 5. Tues.-Thurs., 7:30 p.m., Fri., 8 p.m., Sat., 2:30 and 8 p.m., Sun., 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree St. 404-733-5000.

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