A dozen supremely talented musical theater triple-threats and an inspired director-choreographer joined forces this past weekend to bring back the Golden Age Broadway hit Kismet, demonstrating once again that the “concert staged reading” may well be the very best way to revive forgotten musical theater gems.

Despite winning the 1954 Tony as Best Musical and Hit Parade smashes like “Strangers In Paradise” and “Baubles, Bangles, And Beads,” the Arabian Nights-themed Kismet has gone the way of countless other long ago Broadway hits—famous enough to provoke a nostalgic smile but no longer well enough known to merit a fully-staged revival. Add to that a creaky book and a cost-prohibitive Original Broadway Cast of 50 (yes 50!) and who’s going to program Kismet in 2013?

But oh those songs set to the melodies of Russian composer Alexander Borodin by Robert Wright and George Forrest (who’d done the same thing with the music of Edvard Grieg a decade earlier in Song Of Norway). These songs alone proved reason enough for Musical Theatre West to feature Kismet in their 2012-13 Reiner Reading Series, and with director-choreographer Daniel A. Smith finding ways to trim a cast of 50 down to 12 without a need for gorgeous sets or sumptuous costumes, and staging Kismet with tongue firmly in cheek, the result was a staged reading that easily brought a sold-out house to their feet.

Based on Edward Knoblock’s 1911 play about Hajj, a wily Mesopotamian poet with a way of getting himself out of jam after jam, and his gorgeous young daughter Marsinah, who falls in love with a young Caliph she takes to be a gardener, Kismet features as supporting characters a comically villainous Wazir Of Police, his seductive wife Lalume, the poet Omar Khayyam himself, and a slew of roles for its remaining 44 Broadway players to bring to life.

Director Smith lets us know from the get-go that we are seeing actors putting on a show in which our imaginations will serve as a key ingredient.

Six stellar performers play the six lead characters, while the other half-dozen portray “a multitude of roles (each and every one completely indispensable to the tale we are about to tell.)”

All twelve begin and end the show dressed simply, in contemporary garb. Dozens of scarves and robes hang on clothes racks on either side of the all-black stage. Then, as the cast don various bits of character-defining costuming, these Storytellers transport us into a world in which our imagination will fill in the blanks.

6’4” all-American leading man Chris Warren Gilbert may not match the image of Poet Hajjes past, but per Smith’s vision, this is an actor playing a part, and play it exceedingly delightfully he does, his great big baritone a magnificent fit for songs like “Fate,” “Gesticulate,” and “The Olive Tree” as he inhabits the charismatic Hajj with just enough of a wink to let us know he’s in on the joke.

Madison Claire Parks, Laurey in MTW’s recent Oklahoma!, has a beauty and stage presence belying her seventeen years, and as glorious a soprano as you’ll ever hear, on this or any Broadway stage. Opposite Parks, tall, blond, and handsome Caleb Shaw is everything an Arabian Knights Caliph Charming should be, with a soaring tenor to match his romantic partner’s soprano. Together, Parks and Shaw sing “Baubles, Bangles, And Beads” and “Stranger In Paradise” as gorgeously as they’ve ever been sung.

Melissa Fahn, fresh from playing down-to-earth Bronxite Janie in MTG’s reading of A Catered Affair, now unleashes her inner tigress in a sensational turn as the sexy, seductive Lalume. Not surprisingly, Lalume’s “Not Since Ninevah,” “Rahadlakhum,” and “Bored” (introduced in the MGM film version) couldn’t be better sung.

As the Wazir, Robert Hoyt carries on in the grand comedic tradition of Henry Calvin (who originated the role) and Sebastian Cabot (who played him on film), proving himself every bit the vocal equal of his castmates in the bargain—and when Gilbert, Parks, Shaw, and Hoyt join voices for “And This Is My Beloved” … it is pure heaven.

Marc Benard completes the cast of principals splendidly as Omar Khayyam, and gets to lead the entire cast in the infectious “He’s In Love.”

As for the rest of the company, Jonathan Arana, Jordan Lamoureux, and William Martinez play all the remaining male roles (policemen, muezzins, guards, beggars, etc.) … and outrageously, fabulously so. Jennifer Wilcove, Ayme Olivo, Amy Glinskas have tremendous fun bringing assorted princesses and slaves to hilarious blonde, brunette, and redheaded life.

Musical director Daniel Thomas elicits marvelous vocal performances in addition to conducting the onstage orchestra.

Charles Lederer and Luther Davis’s book does appear to have been trimmed down some, and there are fewer dance sequences than in the Broadway original, though those that remain are imaginatively choreographed by Smith and terrifically performed by his oh-so talented cast.

Audience members can thank Reiner Reading Series producers David Lamoureux and Michael Betts, as well as series underwriters Ken & Dottie Reiner and the Ackerman Family/Evalyn M. Bauer Foundation. Alex Jordan is sound engineer, Ben Karasik crew chief, and Mary Ritenhour production manager.

All-around top-drawer readings of Legs Diamond, 110 In The Shade, The Secret Garden, and now Kismet have made this Reiner Reading Series season the very best one so far, and with City Of Angels coming up in August, and a new season to be announced at that time, upcoming concert staged readings seemed destined to be every bit as exciting. And that’s what they call Kismet.

University Theatre, California State University, Long Beach.

–Steven Stanley
June 30, 2013

Tags: , , ,

Comments are closed.