The last production I saw at the London Coliseum was a brilliant revival of Britten’s Death in Venice, and the 1953 Broadway musical Kismet, now playing a short summer season with hopes of boosting the ENO's finances with some populist fare, couldn’t be more different.
The Baghdad set Arabian tale, by Robert Wright and George Forrest, actually takes its musical lead from tunes by Alexander Borodin. Wright and Forrest’s orchestrations (and some original compositions) can be a little bit gooey and tinkly, as you might expect from a musical comedy of that era. But when Borodin is let loose, in unison with some brilliant operatic and musical theatre voices, the music really can soar. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the production, or the show itself, which certainly doesn’t soar. Direction is awkward and clunky, and the dialogue and exposition can be excruciating (especially when poorly executed, as here). The acting is hit and miss, and a few of the voices (surely the reason for getting the job) fail to please.
Directed by Broadway regular Garry Griffin (who gave us an excellent Pacific Overtures at the Donmar in 2003), the production looks like a pale sibling of the real, glorious Broadway musicals of the 1950’s. Designer Ultz does hi regular job; providing clean lines, bold blocks of colour and symmetrical patterns. When he’s designing for new writing at the Royal Court for example, the designs look crisp and modern, so I didn’t exactly expect a vivid evocation of old Baghdad, but the extent to which the set looked cheap (even vulgar) was surprising. The choreography is also quite a mess, evidence of creative rifts that made the original choreographer walk out just before the production opened.
Michael Ball leads the cast as an itinerant poet cum beggar, selling rhymes on the streets of Baghdad, he is ably assisted by his beautiful daughter Marsinah (Sarah Tynan). The sadistic Wazir of Police (Graeme Danby, with a brilliantly powerful voice) and his libidinous wife Lalume (an underpowered and faltering Faith Price), rule over the city, whilst their ineffectual Caliph (an excellent Alfie Boe) is more interested in finding his love than in ruling the city. His love just happens to be Marsinah, whom he meets whilst in disguise as gardener, so an eventual romantic and happy conclusion to the proceedings is not exactly a shock (this is not a show for revelations). The obvious plot and limp comic peril helps to keep the audience quite disinterested in the life of our hero, the poet, and the other protagonists.
I have to admit a fondness for Kismet; listening to the original Broadway cast recording is a guilty pleasure. But in performance Kismet is clearly more problematic than on a highlights recording. The small Arcola production of the show a few years ago wisely cut out much of the waffle and more ludicrous elements, but even then the show didn’t fly. The same is even more true for this two hour and forty minute version. The critics panned the show for many good reasons (some of which I have mentioned), but I don’t personally subscribe to the notion that reviving a musical set in Baghdad is automatically in bad taste (which wouldn’t have been said if critics had liked the show, it would have been ‘how refreshing to see Baghdad in a jolly light’ etc). We shouldn’t banish views of a place or situation that doesn’t subscribe to our own current perception of that place, especially historically set ones. But of course Kismet could be set in any ‘exotic’ and colourful locale really, it tells us little or nothing about the glorious civilisation of Baghdad (not should we expect a musical entertainment to do so).
Despite the leaden production and manifold flaws in the show itself, I did obtain a lot of pleasure from the occasional musical highlight (‘Strangers in Paradise’ and ‘Night of my Nights’ amongst others), but unfortunately kismet (or fate) is not on the side of this show.
P.S: Who are the mad women who give standing ovations and throw roses at Michael Ball at the conclusion of every performance he takes part in?