A giant horse trundles on to the stage with smoke pouring from its nostrils and Zorro on its back. The audience screams with delight. Zorro points his sword to the skies, then rescues a damsel, climbs back aboard his steed and reverses slowly into the wings. About half of the audience screams with delight again; the other half roars with laughter; a few groan.
Zorro - The Musical! is a pleasant mixture of silliness and unabashed theatrical melodrama. Loosely based on the Douglas Fairbanks film The Mask of Zorro, it tells the story of Jos, a gypsy foundling adopted by a kindly Spanish liberal whose beautiful daughter he rescues from drowning at the age of nine. A decade later, a Toledo-wielding Jos is exiled by King Ferdinand after killing his beloved step-sister's fianc in a fencing spat.
Penniless in colonial Los Angeles, Jos assumes the mask and cape of Zorro, pitting his wits against the oppressive Governor Don Fernando and his henchman Laffite, a pirate who has sold his soul to the devil in return for a charmed life (he can only be killed by a Toledo steel wielded by a gypsy) and is so old that his face has started to rot.
Most of this is the invention of the brilliant popularist Ken Hill, who sadly died in January after more than 20 years writing and directing musicals (including The Count of Monte Cristo, The Mummy's Tomb, The Invisible Man and The Curse of the Werewolf) at Stratford East and Newcastle Playhouse. Hill plays Zorro for laughs, spending no time on the dark side of his charm and little energy on the plight of the peons he comes to liberate. Hill's own stridently unpoetic lyrics are set to a fistful of jaunty melodies from the traditional Spanish vaudeville form of zarzuela, giving them an incongruous comedy reminiscent of the Two Ronnies singing club-footed rhymes to Souza marches. The sentimental potential of the musical stock is also spurned by Hill, who gives the best romantic tenor aria to a sea captain who makes Jos scrub the deck and then vanishes from the plot (not as poignant as you might think).
In such emotional straits, Bogdan Kominowski (star of Hill's Phantom of the Opera, which transferred to the West End) finds it hard to be charismatic as Zorro. For all his engaging stage presence and his neat comic timing, he doesn't have the to-die-for looks or the to-kill-with athleticism that could have made the show a palpable hit. With his loveable husky voice and polite stoop, he looks like a kindly barman who offered to stand in for the sex-pot lead at an early rehearsal and never got replaced.
All around him, however, the cast embrace their spoofed roles with showy vigour. Siobhan McCarthy combines raunchiness with Nolan-Sisterly charm as the rabble-rousing inn-keeper Dolores; Steven Serlin, who plays all the men outcharmed by Zorro, sulks his way through the entire play in an engaging flurry of stamps and pouts; Michael N Harbour, a raspberry- rich bass with a glowering eye, creates a genuine melodramatic frisson in "I Sold My Soul", the show-stopping solo for the decomposing pirate Laffite.
All this is topped by Sylvester McCoy's triumphant performance as Zorro's dumb servant Bernardo. Playing the old pantomime tricks of moustache-wiggling and eye-boggling as if his life depended on it, McCoy scurries around the stage like a cheeky waiter in a silent film, supplying a stream of physical gags to supplement the groaning one-liners that are Hill's staple fare. The tide of festive comedy, with McCoy at its tip, sweeps away all resistance, and Zorro stands as its cast intend it, as a tribute to the "good night out" philosophy that was Ken Hill's trademark.
n `Zorro' continues at Theatre Royal, E15 (0181-534 0310) to 18 Mar
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