In "Kismet," those wacky Iraqis are manipulated into wide-eyed compliancy by a silver-tongued con man, who shrugs off talk of torture and death, snatches up bags of gold, blithely dispatches the evil local ruler and, via some nonsensical chicanery, restores love and harmony to the people -- and all in 24 hours!
You don’t hear Baghdad described as “The world’s gayest playground!” on CNN every night. In “Kismet,” which got the annual Encores! series of musical revivals off to a sputtering start, those wacky Iraqis are manipulated into wide-eyed compliancy by a silver-tongued con man, who shrugs off talk of torture and death, snatches up bags of gold, blithely dispatches the evil local ruler and, via some nonsensical chicanery, restores love and harmony to the people — and all in 24 hours! Has musical theater suddenly begun channeling Dick Cheney?
Not really. Aside from some pertinent applause for one brief exchange of dialogue (“If it is written that I am to die in Baghdad, how shall I avoid it?” “By staying out of Baghdad.”), this Arabian Nights operetta is about as relevant and roadworthy today as the Edsel. The 1954 Tony winner for best musical, adapted into a lumbering MGM feature the following year by Vincente Minnelli, harks back to a time when American popular entertainment routinely plundered foreign cultures for exotic stories, without a thought for authenticity.
The shyster hero (Brian Stokes Mitchell) is a public poet in 11th century Baghdad, who assumes the identity of the beggar Hajj. Through some crafty wordplay and the felicitous intersection of luck and fate, the poet manages to dupe the corrupt Wazir of Police (Danny Rutigliano) into believing he’s a powerful wizard. At the same time, he seduces the Wazir’s sexpot Wife of Wives, Lalume (Marin Mazzie), who requires little seducing.
In order to secure a hefty loan, the Wazir must orchestrate a wedding for the Caliph (Danny Gurwin), Commander of the Faithful, and three scimitar-wielding princesses from a neighboring kingdom. But those plans get complicated when the Caliph falls for Hajj’s daughter Marsinah (Marcy Harriell), who believes he’s a common gardener.
Juggling lukewarm romantic intrigue with cartoon villainy and explosions of bazaar color, director Lonny Price nudges the action along but can’t concoct anything remotely dynamic from the inane book by Charles Lederer and Luther Davis — inspired by the Edward Knoblock play and performed here in a mercifully pruned concert adaptation by David Ives.
The show’s saving grace has always been Robert Wright and George Forrest’s agreeable score, adapted from the lush melodies of Alexander Borodin. But despite the robust sound of a 41-piece orchestra ably led by Paul Gemignani, the songs — the Caliph and Marsinah’s “Stranger in Paradise” the best known of them — now seem pleasant but rarely stirring.
While his natural confidence and hard-sell charm would seem to make him a good fit for Hajj, Mitchell is a little stiff in the role, not yet nailing the character at the first performance. His warm baritone wraps smoothly around songs like “Rhymes Have I” and “Fate,” but comedy is not Mitchell’s forte and he’s unprepossessing as the show’s central figure.
Mitchell’s co-star from “Kiss Me Kate,” “Ragtime” and “Man of La Mancha,” Mazzie steals the comic thunder with a delicious turn as the glamorous Slut of the Casbah, lewdly checking out the tasty man-slaves and happily playing along with Hajj’s trickery, simply because he’s hot. Looking dynamite in a flashy gold Donatella-goes-Mesopotamian number and a soufflé of blond curls, Mazzie’s campy delivery of “Not Since Nineveh” and the beyond-jaded “Bored” succeeds in briefly raising the temperature of the otherwise tepid brew.
As the young lovers, Gurwin and Harriell — the latter breaking from her usual rocker-chick idiom in “Rent” and “Lennon” to step into more classical musical-comedy mode — are sweet but ineffectual, with zero chemistry.
Choreographer Sergio Trujillo injects athleticism and plenty of generic genie moves via a dance ensemble led by ever-supple “Movin’ Out” lead Elizabeth Parkinson. (Trujillo’s dangerous cheerleader routines for the diminutive but feisty three princesses of Ababu take a distinct cue from the original work of Jack Cole, preserved in the movie.)
The cast is costumed in crisp white with splashes of bold color, the stage is festooned with fringed drapes and lanterns, and the lighting is awash with vibrant hues. But to borrow the title of another of the show’s songs, it would take more than a few “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” to dress up this creaky old relic.