Last year, Spreckels Theater Company staged an unconventional revival of Rogers and Hammerstein’s ‘Carousel,’ a play many have heard of but few have ever actually seen. Eschewing complex sets, shoreline scenery—and, you know, an actual carousel—director Gene Abravaya inverted the whole concept, hauling the orchestra up from the pit, and letting the show unfold in front and around the musicians, in what was advertised as a “staged concert.” The production was a solid success, though—it being described as a concert—there were some audience members who showed up expecting actors in suits standing before microphones, singing the show from sheet music propped up on metal music stands. They did not expect a fully staged musical, presented with costumes and characters and choreography and even actual, if somewhat minimal, sets. Stripped down as it was, the result was intimate, satisfying and strangely magical.
This year, Abravaya is trying to make similar magic, with another “staged concert” of a little known musical, this time taking on the rarely-performed, Arabian-tale-themed 1953 romance ‘Kismet.’ Set in ancient Baghdad during the time of poet Omar Kayam—he of the ‘Rubiyat,” the “moving finger writing,” and the “jug of wine, loaf of bread and thou”—‘Kismet’ blends original songs by Robert Wright and George Forest with reworked pieces by the 19th century Russian composer Alexander Borodin. The composer’s 1890 opera Prince Igor has been resurrected, and largely rewritten for ‘Kismet,’ with a new story and wholly original lyrics layered atop Borodin’s sweeping melodies.
Kismet’s shaggy-doggish story, based on a non-musical stage play of the same name from 1911, follows a poor poet played by Tim Setzer with charming, spot-on perfection. Seeking a few coins with which to buy a meal, the poet arrives in Bagdad with his daughter Marsinah—an electrifyingly good Carmen Mitchell—accidentally timing their visit just as the royal Caliph—a somewhat stiff but gorgeously voiced Jacob Bronson—is reluctantly shopping for a princess, the various candidates arriving from surrounding kingdoms by the score.
The poet, almost immediately arrested for a petty crime, attempts to save himself from a harsh punishment by passing himself off as a wizard to Baghdad’s stern, law-enforcing Wazir, played by Harry Duke, in a hilarious and richly entertaining performance that is simultaneously wacky and unsettling. At the same time, the poet launches a reckless affair with the Wazir’s primary wife LaLume, played by Brenda Reed, managing to be both sexy and a little bit scary all at once.
Meanwhile, Marsinah, the poet’s daughter, accidentally meets the Caliph, who, for various reasons, assumes she’s a visiting princess, while she assumes that he’s a gardener. They fall in love to the aching strains of the show’s most recognizable tune, Stranger in Paradise, setting up a series of events that become frequently tangled, and quite a bit silly, right up until the story’s slightly shocking climax.
There’s a lot going on, but 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.
Still, the cast is uniformly splendid—and as directed by Abravaya with sweet simplicity and an emphasis on the lovely but rarely 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.
‘Kismet’ runs Thursday–Sunday through February 28 at Spreckels Performing Arts Center. www.spreckelsonline.com