Rachel Reviews... Zorro the Musical (at last!)

A rip-roaring dive into the sizzling heat of 19th Century California, where the legend of El Zorro meets the passion of flamenco and the irresistable sound of The Gipsy Kings. A story of love, hope and heroism with an incredible multi-talented cast. Go and see it now before it's too late!

I've been a fan of all things Zorro for as long as I remember. When I was a child, my dad and I watched "The Mask of Zorro" together, and from the moment the caped hero appeared on the screen I was hooked. Since then, I have read all of the books, written three globally-published novels (The Musician's Promise Series) heavily inspired by the characters from Zorro, completed a charity horse ride dressed as Zorro and even named my assistance dog Zorro in honour of his black mask. You can safely say I'm a bit of a fan.



So when Zorro the Musical came to London's West End fourteen years ago, and my family bought me tickets for my birthday, you might expect that I was thrilled.


But I wasn't. Zorro the Musical sounded... well, a bit rubbish to be honest. People raised skeptical eyebrows when I mentioned it. I had horrible visions of my beloved caped crusader tap-dancing with a cheesy grin on his face, wearing a cape made of sequins while leggy girls dressed as gold coins cavorted around the stage. It was a horrible thought. "Zorro the Musical" had the potential to ruin my beloved hero for me forever, and I wasn't sure my heart could take the pain.


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As it turned out, I couldn't have been more wrong. Zorro the Musical was easily the most thrilling and spectacular show I'd ever seen, and still maintains that title to this day (and I've had the privilege of seeing a LOT of shows). Anyone who raises an eyebrow at the mention of Zorro the Musical now gets a firm education from me about how amazing it was and why it's my all-time favourite show. The music was incredible, and The Gipsy Kings instantly became my favourite musicians as a result. The flamenco dancing, sword stunts, special effects and unbelievable magic tricks contributed to a better show than I could have ever wished for- I still have no idea how they did some of those tricks, and swear at least some of it must have been actual witchcraft. Had the show's run not ended so soon afterwards, I would've gladly sold everything I owned in exchange for tickets to see it again.



Then in early 2020, while staying with my sister in London, I spotted an advert for a concert version of Zorro the Musical at Cadogan Hall. It was a one-night-only event, which happened to be the one night I was there in London, and featured some of the original London cast including Emma Williams (my favourite performer) as Luisa and Lesli Margherita as Inez.



Needless to say I dragged my sister to see it, and cried with happiness all the way through. Better still, I found out at the performance that Zorro was due to return to the stage at the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester a month later, so of course I booked tickets to see it... three times.


We all know what happened in 2020. The DAY BEFORE I was due to see the show, lockdown was announced and the theatres closed. I can't imagine how gutted the cast must've been after all that work and preparation. I know I certainly was.


By some miracle, the theatre company survived the pandemic. Zorro was coming to London: I booked tickets. The date moved. I booked MORE tickets.


Zorro arrived in London in April 2022. I had moved back to the Channel Islands by this point and now had two children under the age of five, so getting back to London to see the show was not going to be a cheap or easy feat, but with a lot of careful planning we made it work.


Then on the afternoon of Saturday 22st May, just a few short hours before the show was due to start, we had a text message from the theatre. The show was cancelled.


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Thankfully with a little bit of rearranging (and quite a lot of swearing and praying), we managed to get tickets for the Sunday matinée performance instead. The reason for the previous day's cancellation quickly became clear- they were two main cast members down, so adjustments had to be made to the cast in order for the show to work. Having now seen it, I can completely understand why.



First Impressions


Before I even booked tickets, I already knew that this show was going to be very different from the musical I had seen fourteen years ago. Back then, they had a huge stage at The Garrick Theatre with a very complex set, complete with collapsing platforms, trap doors and the capacity for all manner of special effects. This version of the show, however, was described as an "immersive experience". The audience would almost become part of the show, with the main action taking place in the middle while the audience sat on either side of the stage. The cast was small, and doubled up as the orchestra and stage crew as well.


To be honest, I was worried at first that this show would be a bit of a low-budget imitation of the glorious spectacle that was the original. Now I understand that this is a very unfair way of looking at it. This show is not an imitation- it's a complete re-imagining.


This new version of the show was never going to have the same magical impact as the original due to staging constraints. Zorro was not going to be able to swing across the stage to the rescue on a rope as I remembered, nor would he be able to do quite the same mind-bending disappearing tricks as I had seen in the original. There would be no complex collapsing platforms to allow for death-defying stunts, and no clever optical illusions making it look as though swords were actually going through people. It's very difficult to perform convincing magic tricks when you are so close to the audience (even though I was delighted to see that they still included some of the pyrotechnics including the famous flaming sword, and the disappearing / appearing tricks were far more successful than I had expected thanks to clever lighting). However, this close proximity granted the audience access to a different kind of magic- the magic of immersive theatre- and this made it all the more thrilling to watch.



Cast



Zorro / Diego - Benjamin Purkiss

Photos by Pamela Raith


What is it about the Masked Crusader that makes him so appealing? Perhaps it's the fact that his skills are based on athleticism, talent and intelligence rather than "chosen one" styled superpowers. Maybe it's his romantic charm, or the way he selflessly puts himself on the line to protect the innocent and oppressed. Either way, he's instantly recognisable, all dressed in black with his cape, hat, and of course his mask.


Benjamin Purkiss did an excellent job of this complicated role. When you think about it, he was playing three different characters all at once:


  1. The real Diego. Lost, hurting and conflicted, mourning his father and trying to do what's right while trying to work out where his heart truly lies. Poor Diego. I wanted to give him a hug and tell him it was going to be OK.

  2. The Diego he had to pretend to be in order to convince Ramon he wasn't a threat. Ridiculous, cowardly and grovelling, he was a wonderfully comic figure, camp as a row of pink tents and brilliantly convincing as the "servant" brother trying atone for his "deviant" gypsy life.

  3. El Zorro, iconic swashbuckling hero, defender of the poor and savior of the innocent. Suave, charming and confident, and of course always one step ahead of everyone else.


Purkiss was absolutely brilliant, switching between Diego's multiple personalities with ease and even using different voices and mannerisms for each. He did an excellent job of the songs, my personal favourite being his "A Love We'll Never Live" duet with Luisa. It's not just Diego's multiple personalities that make him a challenging role to play; it's also his athleticism. One minute Purkiss was engaged in a thrilling sword fight, then immediately after performing a chase scene where he was leaping around with guards in hot pursuit, then seconds after that he was singing an emotional power-ballad without either missing a note nor appearing to break a sweat.


Oh, and somehow he managed a full costume change in the split second he was offstage, too.


It would be impressive enough had this been a one-off occurrence, but no- this was pretty much the pattern of most of Diego / Zorro's appearances throughout the show. Most of the time, I didn't even notice 'Diego' slip offstage before 'Zorro' appeared right beside me in the audience. Purkiss' stamina was unbelievable.


Overall, I couldn't imagine anyone else doing a better job of playing Diego / Zorro. Purkiss nailed it, and it was a real honour to watch him perform.


Put it this way... when Netflix signs that deal to turn The Musician's Promise into an award-winning TV series (shh, I can dream), Benjamin Purkiss will be the first person to be offered the main role of Artie after this performance!



Inez - Jessica Pardoe (usually played by Phoebe Panaretos)


Understudy Pardoe stepped into the role of Inez at the last minute, but you'd have never guessed it from watching her perform. Gypsy queen Inez is a fantastic role and iconic to this show, in the same way that Nancy is to Oliver. She's feisty, fiercely loyal, funny and overall a fantastic female character. She has the best lines, the best songs, and the biggest dance numbers- from Baile Me to Bamboleo, Djobi Djoba to One More Beer, this show might be called Zorro but really it's ALL about Inez!


I've seen Inez played three different ways now, and in lots of ways Pardoe's Inez was my favourite. She was gentler and more flirtacious than I've seen before, and certainly less ferocious in her jealousy towards Luisa, which made their eventual friendship and her lack of ill-will towards Diego more believable after he chooses Luisa over her. Her love for her fellow gypsies and pride in her identity gave her all of the passion she needed, and she was magnetic to watch whenever she was onstage. While a few of her humerous lines got a little bit lost in group scenes, this was far more down to staging rather than her delivery. Her chemistry with both Garcia and Diego was wonderful, and I especially loved her sassy exchange with Diego when he was choosing his costume. Her first meeting with Garcia was equally fun, with her flirtacious sarcasm contrasting brilliantly with his nervous bumbling ("I am still Inez...").


I won't give too many spoilers, but her last scene was very moving and she did a great job of it. I had a lump in my throat even though I knew what was going to happen, and I'm sure I was far from being the only one.


Pardoe gave this great character justice and made Inez her own, complete with great vocals and dance skills. I heard other audience members after the show discussing how they couldn't believe she was the understudy, as she seemed so natural in the role, and I fully agree with them.


She did a great job of a challenging and brilliant role. I look forward to seeing her in more leading roles in the future!



Luisa - Paige Fenlon


Photos by Pamela Raith


Another fabulously strong female role, Luisa can fight as well as any man and is not afraid to stand up for what she believes in. She's not your average love interest, and is certainly no classic simpering damsel in distress, even in her darkest moments when her life is hanging in the balance. She's a real firecracker, and I love her for that.


Luisa isn't the easiest role to play as she's so serious compared to the rest of the other characters! Often the bearer of bad news, frequently angry and despairing at what has become of her beloved town under Ramon's command and frustrated by Diego's general uselessness (or so she thinks), I'm not sure Luisa even manages to crack a smile for the for the first quarter of the show. Yet despite Luisa's seriousness, Fenlon still managed to bring a lot of fun into the role. Her interactions with Zorro during the bath scene were especially good, and I loved how Luisa still held control throughout the scene despite her vulnerable position (while Zorro was the one squirming with embarassment)! In the second half of the show she had the opportunity to lighten up a lot more as she joined the gypsies and show off her dance skills, and her 'A Love We'll Never Live' duet with Diego was a particular highlight for me.


However, the defining moment for Luisa for me was always going to be her big ballad, "The Man Behind the Mask". It's quite possibly my favourite ballad of all time (no pressure, Paige) and while it perhaps didn't quite have the same vocal power or emotional impact as Emma Williams' version I really enjoyed this rendition. You could really feel Luisa's frustration and anger at the world, and her helplessness as all she could do was stand there and await her fate.


While Fenlon's onstage chemistry with Purkiss (Zorro) was good, I especially liked her interactions with Ramon (Maxwell Griffin). You could really feel the tension between them whenever they were onstage together, which was even more impressive when you consider that Griffin was the understudy and this performance was his debut.


Overall a great performance of a wonderful character. We need more feisty heroines in the world!


Interesting fact: Esperanza in The Musician's Promise is heavily based on the character of Luisa from Zorro the Musical. They both share their fiesty personalities, disregard for authority and determination to fight for what they believe in: the freedom of their people from oppression. As far as looks go, though, she is far more like Elena from The Mask of Zorro, as portrayed by the beautiful Catherine Zeta Jones.


Ramon - Maxwell Griffin (usually played by Alex Gibson-Giorgio)


Oh, Ramon. Jealous, dangerous, power-obsessed Ramon, desperate for his father's approval and blind to his own many, many faults. What a brilliant character- but then, the villains always are the most exciting to watch, aren't they? You just never know what they might do next.


I don't want to give away too many spoilers here, as half of Ramon's brilliance as a character is his unpredictability. All I will say is that Griffin did a fantastic job, especially considering that this was (I believe) his first time in the role. Each time he came onstage he was more frightening, and his ferocity towards Luisa was genuinely scary. There were points when he was wielding a gun when I felt genuine fear for what he might do... and that was me, as someone who already knew what was going to happen!


I feel that Griffin deserves an extra-special mention here, too, after looking at his bio in the programme and seeing that he was understudy to both Ramon AND Diego. This was in addition to being part of the ensemble, with everything that they had to do. Pretty impressive, eh?


Interesting fact: Don Raul from The Musician's Promise Series was based heavily on the character of Ramon from Zorro the Musical. He was even called Ramon in early edits, and shares many similar features with Ramon from the show, such as his cruel and power-hungry nature, his desperation to impress his father, and his relentless persuit of the heroine despite her open contempt for him. His greed and love of gold, though, was far more inspired by Rafael, the villain from the movie The Mask of Zorro.

Sergeant Garcia - Marc Pickering

Photo by Pamela Raith


I've seen Sergeant Garcia played three different ways now- pompous fool, clueless lovestruck puppy, and now gormless bullied child. Pickering was the latter, and I loved his interpretation of the character. From the moment he showed Inez the sergeant's stripes on his uniform, his eyes lit up with excitement like a schoolboy who had just been given a sticker, and he had the audience in the palm of his hand.


The moment when Ramon humiliated him in front of Inez was heartbreaking, and Pickering did a wonderful job of balancing Garcia's fear of Ramon with his desperation for Inez to see him as more than just a coward. My favourite moment of his, though, had to be when Diego was teaching him how to charm women. His portrayal of a drunk, lovestruck Garcia has to be one of the funniest things I've seen in a while, and how he kept a straight face through it all I have no idea.


His wonderful rendition of 'One More Beer', complete with comedy dancing, was also a highlight for me.


I won't give away what happens at the end of the show- all I'll say is that Pickering handled it beautifully, and had the audience shedding a tear with him in the penultimate scene. He turned this character, who could've just been a bumbling fool, into someone the audience sympathised with and rooted for right until the end. It was wonderful to watch.



Ensemble

Ajjaz Awad, Pete Ashmore, Amy Bastani, Isobel Bates, Ben Boskovic, Matthew Bugg, Matthew Heywood, Jessica Lim, Stylianos Thomadakis, Hannah Woodward.

Photo by Pamela Raith


I don't think I've ever seen a show where the ensemble were so active. They were rarely offstage, one moment dancing a fiery flamenco, the next charging around in a chase scene, and a moment later playing an instrument and accompanying the next song. Many of them played more than one instrument during the course of the show, and while this sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, it really was wonderful.


It was one of those things I couldn't picture working until it happened, but the actor-musicians stayed in character as the gypsy group the whole time which made the transitions into the songs feel natural. Their stunt work was also very good, although they did suffer from 'small-cast syndrome' in some of the fight scenes, where one gentle kick from the hero would send them off looking petulant but uninjured, ready for the next attacker to take a turn. While it did make the group fight scenes look less realistic, I guess this sort of thing can't really be helped with such a small cast, who have far too much to do to waste time rolling around screaming on the floor with pretend injuries.


I think my favourite ensemble moment was their song 'Libertad', sung by the women near the beginning of Act One. There was so much power and emotion in this song, combined with some fabulous acting from the ladies as well as passionate flamenco dancing. 'In One Day' was also a wonderful ensemble moment, with some lovely harmonies adding to the emotional poignancy of their helplessness in the face of what was happening.


And then, of course, we had the pleasure of the big group numbers. 'Baila Me', 'Bamboleo' and 'Djobi Djoba' were excellent tributes to the famous songs by the Gipsy Kings, all brilliantly done with powerful vocals and flawless flamenco dancing. They were fun, uplifting and thrilling to watch, and the closeness of the audience to the stage meant that we really felt as though we were part of the fiesta.


All of this was very impressive, but more impressive still was the fact that they did all of this with two cast members down. Both Jessica Pardoe and Maxwell Griffin would normally have been part of the ensmble, but as they were called to step into the roles of Inez and Ramon at short notice, this left ten people to do the job of twelve. With how busy they all were, and how fast-paced the show was generally, it was an impressive feat to see them filling in the gaps to the point where the audience would've never known there was anyone missing.


Huge credit to them for that- they made it look easy, although I know it must've been a real challenge for all involved!


Also a special mention to Pete Ashmore (Storyteller / Don Alejandro), Stylianos Thomadakis (Jorge) and Ben Boskovic (Padre) for their roles, which they slipped seamlessly in and out of at the appropriate moments. Ashmore made a wonderful storyteller, with just the right level of command and energy to get the show started and establish the character of Don Alejandro. Thomadakis' Jorge, although only appearing for a short time had a poignant and emotional impact, while Boskovic's Padre brought a little light relief into what was otherwise a very dark moment. A special mention also to Jessica Lim, who as well as understudying Luisa was the onstage swing, meaning she must've been rushed off her feet covering for people who were missing. Nobody missed a beat, and you'd have never known there was anyone absent at all, so she must've done her job well! Very well done to them all.


Well done also to the creative minds behind the scenes:

Director - Christian Durham, Choreographer - Cressida Carré, Set & Costume Designer - Rosa Maggiora, Musical Director & Orchestrations - Nick Barstow, Sound Designer - Andrew Johnson, Lighting Designer - Matthew Haskins, Fight Director - Renny Krupinski, Casting Director - Jane Deitch, General Manager - Chris Matanlé



Music / Dance


There are no words to express just how much I love the music of The Gipsy Kings. While the orchestrations are different to the original versions, with such a small cast providing the instrumentals while singing and acting at the same time, it really worked. It was often easy to forget that the cast really were playing those instruments live, but they did an excellent job and fabulously strong vocals helped to make the whole experience feel authentic and magical at the same time. It's going to be a good while before I can get those songs out of my head, and you know what? They're so great, I'm happy to let them stay there as long as they like.


As for the dancing, it looked fantastic and felt very in-keeping with the rest of the show. The cast had obviously been coached in Flamenco, and looked as though they were having a whale of a time. Their energy and enjoyment was contagious, and it was an absolute joy to watch.


Jessica Pardoe (Inez) was especially impressive in her dance skills, and owned the stage whenever she stepped onto it. She was hypnotic to watch. A special metion also goes to Ajjaz Awad, whose flamenco / castanets combination was wonderful and really contributed to the atmosphere of the show.



Set / staging


Where to start with the staging? Probably by showing you what it looked like, as it was not the easiest do describe and certainly not your 'normal' layout for a musical.


I just can't make up my mind about it, to be honest. There were times in the show when it was very frustrating, and I couldn't see any of what was going on because my view of the main action was being blocked by another member of the cast. It also meant that if two characters were having a conversation, one facing you and the other with their back to you, you missed out on half of the fabulous acting- or all of it, if you were at an unfortunate enough angle where the character with their back to you was blocking your view of the one facing you. Group scenes could occasionally be a little tricky to follow, especially if the character speaking happened to be facing the other side of the audience.


For example, I know that there was one great moment in particular where Garcia (Marc Pickering) made a very funny facial expression in response to one of Inez's lines, and while my little corner of the audience laughed, it was a shame that the rest of the audience missed the joke because they couldn't see his face. I also missed some key moments in the story because members of the ensemble happened to be standing at just the wrong angle for me at the wrong time, blocking my view, and it was very frustrating.


Perhaps part of the problem was where I was sitting- I was near the front in Row C, close to the wall and low to the ground. If I'd had the chance to see the show again, I'd have probably opted for seats further back and nearer the centre, which would've allowed me to view the action from higher up. Hindsight is a fine thing.


Still, there's a big part of me that appreciates the advantages of this staging arrangement despite its drawbacks. This show was advertised as an 'immersive experience', and it certainly fulfiled that promise. The big group scenes made the audience feel as though they were part of the show, which was especially effective in songs like 'Baile Me' and 'In One Day'.


There were several times when the actors came out into the audience, especially in chase scenes, and this really added to the adrenaline of the experience- my friend Dave was sitting right on the end next to one of the curtained exits, and he was genuinely worried that he might get impaled every time a character ran up beside him with a sword in their hand. We even joked about the few chunks that seemed to have been taken out of the wall next to the exit, and wondered whether the damage had been done by an over-enthusiastic actor in the throes of a chase scene. It was quite exhilarating.


A good example of the advantages of this staging came early in Act Two. Griffin (Ramon) charged out onto the stage wielding a gun, his wild-eyed, unhinged energy sending the rest of the characters running, and I was so into the moment that I had to fight the urge to dive under the seat and hide. I saw several other audience members visibly flinch as he waved that gun around in their direction, so I know I wasn't the only one who had to remind themselves it was all just acting. This really worked in an action-packed show such as Zorro, and it was great to get so close to all of the characters and feel their energy and excitement as the story unfolded.


This setup also allowed the cast to come out into the audience, and there was a wonderful moment in the finale when Zorro (Benjamin Purkiss) knelt on the steps right next to me, singing a few lines directly to the people around me. I felt like a little girl at Disneyland, meeting her childhood hero- it was brilliant. You'd never get that sort of experience with traditionally-staged theatre!



Overall Verdict


I loved it. Seeing this show was a fantastic experience, and very different from anything I'd seen before. The cast were wonderful, the music and flamenco dancing brilliantly done, and of course it was full of swashbuckling romance and action. I'd highly recommend getting tickets to see it, especially as it's only on for a few more days- I promise it's worth it, and if I could afford the flight back to London I'd be at every performance from now until it closes!


For more information about this show, including how to book tickets, click here. Hurry, though- it finishes on the 28th May, so this is your last chance!
Did you enjoy Zorro the Musical? If this is your idea of fun, you might be interested in the books below, which have a similar vibe or share some of the themes. You're welcome!


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