Zorro the Musical at the Charing Cross Theatre – review
The Gypsy Kings musical continues its run through to 28 May
In many ways, the original caped crusader who proceeded even Batman as a reclusive nobleman turned masked vigilante, the great defender of California, Zorro has been depicted in countless films and television series since his magazine debut in 1919 and has long been ripe for theatrical adaptation. First debuting on the London stage in 2008, Zorro the Musical combines the ravishing romance and melodrama of the hero's early 19th century origin story with the pulse-raising back catalogue of the Gispy Kings. New lyrics for the popular songs, as well as a book combining elements of multiple previous Zorro stories, are penned by Stephen Clark.
In Clark's version, the fates of young brothers Diego and Ramon de la Vega and their friend Luisa are sealed when the boys' father and leader of their Los Angeles community, Don Alejandro, orders his younger son to travel to Spain in order to prepare as his successor, igniting a bitter jealousy in the elder brother. Years later, a newly carefree and bohemian Diego has taken up with a band of travelling gypsies in Spain where he is sought out by Luisa. She implores him to return to his California home to defend his people against the recent tyrannical regime of his cruel brother.
Originally scheduled for a pre-pandemic run at the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester with a slightly different cast, this, the first major revival of the show, is set on a traverse staging with the action placed in the middle of two banks of seating. And yet, there is an undeniable Hispanic flavour. Rosa Maggiora's set design puts housefronts on either side of the stage allowing the audience to look upon the action contained between as if glimpsing down a neighbourhood street, and she conceals within them enough storage solutions to impress an Ikea designer. Mix in a generous helping of Flamenco choreography from Cressida Carré, with additional credit to Flamenco adviser Maria Vega, and the auditorium is all but transformed into a Spanish plaza, with the disparate British temperature being the only giveaway.
The cast is led by Benjamin Purkiss, a sweetly buffoonish Zorro who lands the endearing goofy charm of Diego without ever quite convincing as his serious, swashbuckling alter ego. As his childhood sweetheart Luisa, Paige Fenlon simmers with a passionate fury that finally explodes with lovelorn frustration as she crescendos into the final choruses of "Falling". Phoebe Panaretos is nothing short of sensational as Diego's paramour Inez, giving one of those rare, perfect supporting turns in which every scene and musical number she features in is elevated by her electric presence. In her mouth, the same lines of dialogue pulse with a renewed intensity and in her hands the song "Bamboléo" becomes an inextinguishable firework that really ought to be the thrilling, blood-pumping conclusion to act one.
As the plot moves back to California from jovial beginnings in Spain, a shift to a darker mood is not entirely substantial as we meet soldiers who lack menace and believability. However, the arrival of Alex Gibson-Giorgio who brings magnificent malice to the role of the corrupt Ramon de la Vega soon makes for a definite turn towards a tenser tone. He delivers this almost single-handedly though as the script undermines him with the accompaniment of a welcome comic-relief character, Sergeant García, with the delightful Marc Pickering portraying him as both evidently good-natured and hysterically hapless. A romantic subplot that arises with him as the would-be suitor is a highlight among the show's heavier narrative moments.
What director Christian Durham does execute brilliantly are the moments of intrigue and theatricality at which Zorro appears, with Purkiss leaping across the stage and scaling ladders with catlike agility. The ensuing action sequences, however, call for far more instrumental accompaniment to provide a heightened sense of drama, and too often these quiet swordfights come to cumbersomely anticlimactic conclusions.
In fact, more music would not be unwelcome throughout the production, though the show has already turned many heads simply on the intrigue of its adapted jukebox score, the fiery rhythms of the Gipsy Kings songs are underutilised here despite excellent work from musical director and orchestrator Nick Barstow. In particular, several stirring moments of anguished vocal ululation from the talented female ensemble stand out.
And yet, despite some dramatic shortcomings, this stage version of Zorro delivers entirely what is expected of it: epic romance, stimulating swordplay and an almost unsettlingly heavy dose of onstage fire, all while musicians among the cast punctuate it with European musical flair – I doubt audiences will be leaving the Charing Cross Theatre dissatisfied after watching this masked musical.