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Smuin Ballet - 'Zorro!'

Swashbuckling 'Zorro!' is flashy and fun - Smuin Ballet's take on the Z-man has engaging characters, seamless choreography

by Mary Ellen Hunt

May 5, 2003 -- Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco

Smuin Ballet's "Zorro!" has going for it pizzazz, schmaltz, cheez and other things that end in "z," the mark of you-know-who.

The show, which had its premiere at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Friday night, is just the kind of thing for all those people who think ballet is boring and old-fashioned. It's not gripping theater, but as a frivolous bit of fantasy, it's loads of fun.
Choreographer and artistic director Michael Smuin has assembled a team of impressive professionals to help him create one of his most endearing and complete ballets in years.

Lively original music by Charles Fox sets just the right Saturday matinee movie-house atmosphere and the perky costumes and simple, yet serviceable set designs by Ann Beck and Douglas Schmidt respectively, give the production moxie. Also not to be underestimated is a tight libretto by Matthew Robbins that not only recaptures the fun and humor of the swashbuckler films, but also structures the ballet concisely with plenty of snappy characters and scenarios.

Wisely, Smuin and Robbins have stayed away from a straight retelling of the Zorro tale. Instead, they frame the story as a sweet romance between a bashful young movie theater usher named Emilio (perennial audience-favorite Shannon Hurlburt), the ticket booth girl that he loves (a delightfully sassy Claudia Alfieri), and their overbearing, sleazy boss (Easton Smith, for once, in a juicy villain role). This triangle, as it happens, mirrors the Zorro movie love triangle between the Z-man, Rosa, and the arrogant Capt. Monasterio, (the latter two also played by Alfieri and Smith in dual roles). In a kind of tip of the hat to "The Purple Rose of Cairo," Emilio soon finds himself sucked right into the movie as an unexpected sidekick to Zorro. In the process, he learns from his hero how to find the courage to stand up to his boss and win the girl.

In the title role, Rodolphe Cassand is genial and dashing, perfect as both the intrepid Zorro, and as his foppish alter ego, Don Diego. In the duel scenes, he and the raffish Smith might not quite have the touch s of Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone, from the much-loved 1940 "Mark of Zorro" _ clips from "The Bold Caballero," a 1936 version of the tale, are interwoven with the dancing _ but they do have the right broad, debonair feeling.

However, it's the immensely likable and genuine Hurlburt who owns the show from start to finish. Barely offstage for a moment, Hurlburt has dances with ladders, brooms, umbrellas _ in short, various props and situations that recall the stylish humor of Fred Astaire, or the easy amiability of Gene Kelly. It's a style that fits him beautifully while highlighting his solid technique, dramatic chops and boy-next-door appeal.

Indeed, everyone in the show and in the audience seems to be having good time, and the choreography, which looks like a mix of Broadway numbers with championship ballroom dancing maneuvers, flows seamlessly from one scene to the next.

The only problematic parts of an otherwise slickly produced evening were the awkward set transitions from scene to scene. Hopefully set and prop problems will be ironed out over the next few weeks as the show continues its run through mid-May.

Also on the program was Smuin's somewhat uninspiring 1997 "Carmina Burana."

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This review first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News.

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