January 23, 2004





It's Vegas on the Gulf, it's 'Kismet'


The airy fairy tale set in old Baghdad may be a guilty pleasure during wartime, but a knockout Reprise! cast and band are able to pull it off.



By Rob Kendt

Special to The Times


How guilty a pleasure is the glitteringly absurd, lushly Orientalist 1950s musical "Kismet"? That will depend on your stomach for a back-dated vision of Arab culture in hoochie-koochie Western drag--set in the heart of ancient Baghdad, no less.


Yes, this is a virtual Vegas on the Gulf where, as the saucy wife of the town's top cop sings, "Our palaces are gaudier/Our alleyways are bawdier," where decolletage is de rigeur and where said local enforcer gets to mince through a bouncy number celebrating his reputation for torture and dismemberment on the slightest whim.


It's not quite "Springtime for Hitler," but it's safe to say that "Kismet" is unlikely to get a politically correct makeover a la David Henry Hwang's revised "Flower Drum Song" any time soon.


The new short-run concert revival by Reprise! wisely doesn't bother with such tweaking; instead it's an unabashed time capsule with the temerity to take this stuff straight and keep it gay, so to speak. And it has the knockout cast and band to pull it off.


As usual with Reprise!, director Arthur Allan Seidelman has mounted something just shy of a fully staged and costumed production, with a lithe, rippling cast shimmying winningly through Rob Barron's brassy, jiggly choreography and music director Gerald Sternbach leading a flawless ensemble of players and singers through the paces of Robert Wright and George Forrest's Borodin-based score. (The hit was "Stranger in Paradise.")


As the scheming, slick-talking poet Hajj, Broadway veteran Len Cariou sweats a bit to keep up, and his still-recognizable baritone has lost some of its traction, but give him a stage and a spot and this guy can still work magic, as in his soliloquy "The Olive Tree" or his tent-revival pitch "Gesticulate."


As his scampering daughter Marsinah, who has the good fortune to find love in high places, Caryn E. Kaplan is almost impossibly sunny and earnestly cute, like an animated Disney heroine come to life, and she beautiflly nails her role's operetta-like vocal demands.


Similarly suggesting a live cartoon, though in his case something closer to a bottle imp, is Jason Graae as the petulant potentate, the Wazir. Few performers can ooze irony with so little winking, as when he praises "subtlety, always subtlety," or when he registers a bottomless deadpan after delivering the line "Why, Baghdad is the symbol of happiness on earth!"


As the lovesick Caliph, Anthony Crivello is effortlessly sweet and sincere, with a light touch on both his big moments and his high notes that's all the more effectively suave.


But surely the best reason to see this "Kismet" is Jennifer Leigh Warren's gimlet-eyed Lalume, the Wazir's "wife of wives," who has little to do but sashay about and offer occasional odes to the pleasures of the city and its signature dish, the aphrodisiac "Rahadlakum." She's a woman of luxury, and Warren luxuriates in her deliciously. In an eye-scarring green costume that fairly glows under Tom Ruzika's lights, Warren is given the show's creakiest, flimsiest material (admittedly, there's some stiff competition), and she milks it for all its worth.


Just how much is that, exactly? Does this faux-Arabian warhorse really deserve another run around the track? Perhaps such exoticism is bound to feel a little guilty in a time of war, particularly when we've got boots on the very ground where this airy fairy tale purports to take place.


But when our ingenue emerges near play's end in a bejewelled bridal bikini and not even the cover of a veil, and the chorus smilingly lauds such nuptial necessities as "peacocks and monkeys and purple adornings," we've gone well past escapism into an alternate universe of kitsch so thick it's almost pointless to take offense.


If Iraq-with-a-rack sounds like your cup of Rahadlakum, this "Kismet" will have you drunk with joy.


"Kismet," Reprise! Broadway's Best at the UCLA Freud Playhouse, Macgowan Hall. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 p.m. & 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. & 7 p.m. $55-65. (310) 825-2101. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.