The positive side of “Kismet,” a Tony winner in 1953 and a flat MGM musical in 1955, is its melodic score. For those attending the revival at Reprise! who feel that well-performed renditions of “Stranger in Paradise” and “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” give them their money’s worth, this production should be satisfying entertainment. Negative aspects — dated book and antiquated jokes — create a greater challenge for director Arthur Allan Seidelman, who takes an unerringly light, tongue-in-cheek approach that elevates the best bits and makes the absurd ones more palatable.
The reassuring presence of Len Cariou as Hajj, a combination of poet and con man, gives “Kismet” its touch of class. Although Cariou is more believable as rogue than roue and somewhat mature for the part, he projects the necessary shrewdness as a beggar in 11th century Baghdad who convinces master thief Jawan (R.F. Daley) and evil ruler the Wazir (Jason Graae) of his wizardly powers.
In the midst of all this cartoon chicanery is Hajj’s daughter, Marsinah (Caryn E. Kaplan). Marsinah, mistaking the all-powerful Caliph (Anthony Crivello) for a gardener, falls in love with him, unaware that her passion puts her in deadly danger from the Wazir and his scheming wife, Lalume (Jennifer Leigh Warren).
None of this creates jeopardy or suspense, and the book’s lopsided construction keeps the lovers offstage while it dithers with innumerable subplots. Score, too, suppresses dramatic momentum. Many of the Robert Wright and George Forrest tunes, based on Borodin themes, are shoehorned in for entertainment value, without advancing the story and often bringing the action to a dead stop. Despite Seidelman’s brisk, lively pacing, the first act is overwritten and feels too long, always threatening to end and then starting up again.
“Kismet” finds its true comic tone with Graae’s petulant Wazir. Unlike some of the other actors, Graae doesn’t appear to be searching for the reality of his character. He knows the Wazir is a schticky concept and has fun with such lines as “I love fawning beggars,” “Not happy in Baghdad? That’s impossible!” while amusingly rejecting additional wives with “I don’t use the ones I get.” His sex-deprived spouse Lalume (Warren), who has a lustful eye for guards, agrees heartily, and her wide-eyed responses and leering expressions are a comic match for Graae’s extravagant antics.
Love duets between Kaplan and Crivello don’t make any concession to a world beyond the 1940s and ’50s, and we hear echoes of Jane Powell and Kathryn Grayson in Kaplan’s approach. Despite this swoony, operatic treatment, Kaplan’s strong, beautiful voice is musically pleasurable. Crivello wisely plays against everyone in the show with a reserved, devoted and solid approach in plausible Prince Charming/Nelson Eddy tradition.
Memorable romantic high spots in the score include “And This Is My Beloved,” and Graae is in his element outlining all his fiendish qualities in “Was I Wazir.” Choreography by Rob Barron, performed throughout by a group of half-dressed hunks and babes, is too obviously meant to be hot stuff and feels gratuitous. What stabilizes the dances is the safety net of Gerald Sternbach’s orchestra, which maintains Borodin’s flavor and gives every number a drive that keeps “Kismet” vibrating through its strained stretches.