"The multi-talented Carmen Mitchell as Marsinah, render a soulful and soaring version."

As Fate Would Have It

Kismet occupies an interesting place in American musical history. After a Tony-winning, long Broadway run starting in 1953, its failure as a film in 1955 largely precipitated MGM’s retreat from big budget musicals. And perhaps because it lacks sociological significance that is common to more recent musicals, revivals of the stage show have been scant. Yet, whatever its deficiencies, excellent music, dance, and atmospherics abound, along with ample humor from sophomoric to intellectual. Spreckels Theatre Company’s revival is welcomed, and while the production is uneven, it engages and entertains.

Centuries ago in Baghdad, our story finds a poor poet Hajj become a successful beggar, causing unexpected consequences in his life. Meanwhile, his beautiful daughter, Marsinah, falls in love with a man who claims to be a gardener, but of course, he is really the Caliph. Endless complications ensue, with Hajj always on the brink of catastrophe, and the lovers unable to intersect. The particulars of the storyline are of little consequence, as the contribution of the play’s frenzied action outweighs concerns about plot specifics.

Recurrent collaborators, Robert Wright and George Forrest created the music and lyrics. A common thread runs through all of their musicals in that each is set to adaptations of classical music. ForKismet, with its exotic setting and culture, they drew on Russian composer Alexander Borodin’s 1890 opera “Prince Igor” and his string quartets. The best of its music is wonderful, and the rest works quite well. Its signature song is the timeless and memorable “Stranger in Paradise,” and Jacob Bronson as Caliph and the multi-talented Carmen Mitchell as Marsinah, render a soulful and soaring version. The other repeated theme is the tuneful “Baubles, Bangles, and Beads” which also became a chart topping pop hit. Another notable piece is the complex ensemble “And This is My Beloved” which transitions from a quartet to a touching love duet. Final recognition goes to “Was I Wazir,” delivered by Harry Duke as Wazir with great humor and authority when describing the many creative punishments he’s meted out to perpetrators.

One hopes that the production will steady out as the run progresses. Presently, the first act needs more rehearsal and greater confidence, but the second act is without serious deficiency when judged as a non-equity show. Singers, led by Tim Setzer as Hajj, Brenda Reed as LaLume, and the aforementioned lovers, deliver strong passages weakened by occasional thin ones in the first act, but are in full, rich voice in the second. The chorus offers both good sound quality and timing, while the orchestra conveys rounded and balanced sound when backing singers but sounds tinny in the overtures. Acting kudos go to Setzer, who smiles through every adversity Hajj faces, and Duke, who as Wazir glowers and stomps about angrily, despite living at the top of the power and money pyramid. In a smaller role, Dwayne Stincelli displays his long standing skills as the brigand, Jawan.

The Spreckels Performing Arts Center houses a large stage that Director Gene Abravaya ably fills with 27 actors and dancers, and an orchestra of 11. Oddly,the company refers to this rendition as a concert staging, which seems an oxymoron, and therein lies a problem. The orchestra is upstage and fully visible in formal, orchestra black and white outfits, which makes it more difficult to suspend any disbelief. The fixed staging is limited to two huge staircases that flank the stage, with each step and riser pair painted a different pastel color from the next, yielding a cartoonish effect. The back face carries projected orienting images that change occasionally but are too washed out to provide much impact. The staging would benefit from removing the orchestra and adding even basic movable painted panels to depict the different venues of the scenes.

Credit the company with going the full nine yards in two critical areas. Costumery is colorful, representative, rich, and often quite detailed, with a multitude of outfit changes for principals and ensemble alike. In addition, choreography is complex, appealing, and plentiful. Execution is another matter. Numerous talented dancers excel in their solo turns, but synchronization of ensembles needs work. Together, costumes and movement render a kaleidoscopic effect that lights up the stage and compensates for the paucity of stage elements.

Kismet, book by Charles Lederer and Luther Davis, music and lyrics by Robert Wright and George Forrest (from themes by Alexander Borodin) is produced by Spreckels Theatre Company and plays at Spreckels Performing Arts Center, 5409 Snyder Lane, Rohnert Park, through February 28.

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