Theater: Musical revival

‘Kismet’ an enthusiastic undertaking

By David Templeton

“Princes come, princes go,” sings Omar Khayyam at the start of the long-lost musical Kismet, now playing at Spreckels Performing Arts Center. The same sentiment can be said of Broadway shows like this one. A huge hit in 1953, the Arabian-themed romance is largely unknown today.

In Spreckels Theatre Company’s nostalgia-driven new production—full of vibrant costumes, outstanding singing and lush orchestral music—it becomes simultaneously clear why the show is of such limited interest today, and why that’s also a bit of a shame.

Set in ancient Baghdad during the time of poet Omar Khayyam (Jeremy Berrick), the musical blends original songs by Robert Wright and George Forrest with reworked pieces by the 19th century Russian composer Alexander Borodin, whose 1890 opera Prince Igor was largely rewritten for Kismet, adding a new story and wholly original lyrics to Borodin’s sweeping melodies. Kismet’s story, based on a non-musical stage play from 1911, follows a poor poet (Tim Setzer, charmingly spot-on), who arrives in Baghdad with his daughter Marsinah (an electrifyingly good Carmen Mitchell) just as the prince (a somewhat stiff but gorgeously voiced Jacob Bronson) is reluctantly shopping for a princess, with candidates from surrounding kingdoms arriving by the score. Soon arrested for a petty crime, the poet attempts to save himself from the harsh punishments of the law-enforcing Wazir (Harry Duke, in a hilarious and richly entertaining performance), by passing himself off as a powerful sorcerer, simultaneously pursuing a reckless affair with the Wazir’s primary wife LaLume (Brenda Reed, sexy and scary all at once).

Meanwhile, Marsinah accidentally meets the prince, who, for various slightly unbelievable reasons, assumes she’s a visiting princess, just as she assumes that he’s a gardener. They fall in love to the show’s most recognizable tune, “Stranger in Paradise,” setting up a series of events that become frequently tangled, and a bit silly, right up until the story’s slightly shocking climax.

The choreography, by Michella Snider, is energetic and fun, though frequently frenetic and jumbled. But there’s something freeing about it, especially given that in this “staged concert” version of the play, the 11-piece orchestra, under the musical direction of Diego Garcia, is right there on stage surrounded by actors and singers.

It’s clever, at times thrilling, and even a bit dazzling.

Ultimately, Kismet still turns out to be not much of a play, with a dated premise, thin characters and a preposterous plot, plus some outrageously nonsensical dialogue, as when one character says, “He who looks through three windows sees more than one olive tree,” or when another states, “It is only those who love well whom love can hurt.”

Still, rising above all of that, the cast is uniformly marvelous, and as directed by Gene Abravaya with a sweet simplicity and an emphasis on the lovely but hardly memorable music, there is a bit of welcome sorcery on display at all times, bringing this lost artifact from the Golden Days of Broadway back to life with plenty of warmth, color, contagious enthusiasm and genuine love.

NOW PLAYING: Kismet runs Thursday–Sunday through February 28 at Spreckels Performing Arts Center, 5409 Snyder St., Rohnert Park; Fri.-Sat., 8pm; 2pm matinees on Sunday; $16-$26. 707/588-3400.

Pacific Sun
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