They're back! And there goes the Middle East.
Reuniting again, in what some obviously consider the greatest theatrical partnership since Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne (or at least Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick), are Marin Mazzie and Brian Stokes Mitchell. The duo, who costarred in Ragtime, Kiss Me, Kate, and Man of La Mancha, have now dropped into the Encores! production of Kismet, further proving (as if it were necessary) that dropping things on Baghdad results in destruction.
Granted, no lives are lost with this bombing. But no souls are saved, either. This 1953 musical, by Robert Wright and George Forrest (music and lyrics) and Charles Lederer and Luther Davis (libretto), should be the sexiest show in town: Not just because of rampant bare midriffing, but because the songs, derived from the themes of Russian composer Alexander Borodin, shimmer and shimmy with some of musical theatre's rawest, most unchecked sensuality.
Director Lonny Price and choreographer Sergio Trujillo have seized on this, making lust in their production as much a currency as the dinars used by the story's 11th-century characters. The prime purveyor is Elizabeth Parkinson (late of Movin' Out) as a scene-setting and scene-changing genie who undulates through and between scenes as though her body were made entirely of rippling silk. But all of Trujillo's dancers slither through their days and nights in this Baghdad as though a ménage à trois lies just around every corner.
How then can one justify the thoroughly sexless casting of Mitchell and Mazzie as two who thrive on life's fleshiest thrills? He's a poet mistaken for a beggar who becomes involved in a web of intrigue that leads him to defy and eventually ascend to the highest powers in the land; she's Lalume, the saucy wife of wives of Baghdad's leading judge, of whom the Poet falls afoul. They should be the perfect couple: the poor man looking for spiritual and physical fulfillment and the undernourished high-class wife of a man who always has other matters (and women) on his mind. Yet never do Mazzie and Mitchell strike up even a spark.
To be fair, they showed this same room-temperature detachment in their previous shows. But they weren't faced with so many overt opportunities to start stage-consuming blazes: At one point, he's surrounded by fetching slave girls; she performs an entire number doted upon by a coterie of shirtless men; they vamp together throughout in a series of scenes that show how the poor man climbs the social ladder in the oldest (and most effective) way possible. Every moment they share should be hot, but never do they seem interested in each other or anyone else.
It's even difficult to believe they're aware they're in a musical comedy, so solemn and somnolent are their portrayals. Mazzie forces a few laughs by flashing a "Can you believe it?" glare during the story's more outlandish moments. But Mitchell's a tipsy CPA at an office holiday party, resolutely unequipped to sing songs with the forceful flexibility of voice and manner that the Poet's numbers require. His low point is his first-act number, "Gesticulate," a desperate attempt to save his suspected thieving hand from the chopping block; it's the stiffest, most labored turn any musical has seen this season, but it's representative of what Mitchell does in the role.
Price has thus had to stage much of the action around Mitchell, leading to a leadenness in his scenes not matched elsewhere in the production. The fully populated stage pictures and impressive costume plot (Tracy Christensen is credited as consultant) make this one of the most elaborate Encores! showings in years; Trujillo's dances are similarly so pervasive that it often seems that the proceedings could go from cool to sizzling at a second's notice.
But the only real spikes of interest are provided by Randall Duk Kim, as the royal poet Omar Khayyam, and Danny Rutigliano, who plays the Wazir of police (Lalume's husband) as an impetuous child who can't handle his adult responsibilities. (They steal scenes so completely from the billed leads, it's a wonder they still have their hands.) The secondary couple, however, poses no threat: Marcy Harriell and Danny Gurwin, as the Poet's daughter Marsinah and the Caliph she falls in love with, are anonymous presences in a show where everyone should stand out by default.
Chemistry and stage presence can of course be cultivated, though the limited Encores! rehearsal and performance schedule seldom make this easy. But having four leads this musically miscast is an alarming anomaly for the venerable series: Gurwin's, Harriell's, Mitchell's, and Mazzie's roles were originated by Richard Kiley, Doretta Morrow, Alfred Drake, and Joan Diener respectively; these names resonate even today as possessing the exciting vocal authority and definitive musicality the almost-operetta Kismet needs.
This cast never comes close. Were they the best available? Perhaps, though the Mitchell-Mazzie pairing suggests stunt casting. Still, one trembles at the thought of someone like Marc Kudisch as the Poet, bringing his booming baritone and innate sense of oversized whimsy to a role that needs them above all else. Unquestionably, he would have been right at home here. Mitchell, Mazzie, Gurwin, and Harriell only register as - to quote one of the show's best-known songs - strangers in paradise.