Reprise's production of Kismet certainly has its moments, but every silver lining in the show is accompanied by a cloud. Like its own lyrics, this Kismet "weave[s] the evil and good in one design."
Take the show's costumes, designed by Helen Butler and Jeff Transki - a huge collection of fantasy desert wear, with bare midriffs dancing above silky harem pants and a nearly-excessive amount of spangles and beading. Yet many of them are unsuited to their wearers. Some get in the way of dance and acrobatic moves; some are rather unflattering to the figures they reveal; and some are just hugely unattractive when they shouldn't be. The costumes are among the most extravagant on display in a Reprise production, but too many of them are not well chosen.
The duality of the show's quality also appears in the performances. Caryn E. Kaplan as Marsinah, the show's ingenue, has a gorgeous soprano voice that nearly brings the house down in her second act "And This is My Beloved." She is partnered with Anthony Crivello as the Caliph, who falls in love with Marsinah at first sight, and he delivers a powerful rendition of "Stranger in Paradise." But together, they have little chemistry. Charles Lederer and Luther Davis's book provides a very thin scene in which mutual attraction is discovered, and Kaplan and Crivello do not manage anything that transcends it.
The villain of the piece is the Wazir, played by perennial Reprise actor, Jason Graae. Graae's comic stylings in the first act appear to be more of his standard shtick, but he really comes alive in his second act "Was I Wazir?" in which he gleefully sings of the Wazir's prior triumphs. Graae accentuates key lines with a playful little Martin Short-esque pose which makes you idly wonder what sort of Leo Bloom he'd make. With Graae's divine combination of bursting pride and childish self-effacement, the number is one of the best in the production. The problem is that it ends up defining the character in a way that doesn't work with the rest of show. The Wazir is evil; he does brutal, violent things. But Graae's Wazir is so darned adorable, you don't really believe he has done the things he claims to have done, even when he is itemizing them. This is ultimately disastrous - when the Wazir threatens further harm, there's no dramatic tension; when he gets his comeuppance, it seems unfair. He's just too nice of a guy.
The Wazir's wife Lalume is played by Jennifer Leigh Warren. Warren's lengthy introductory sequence to "Not Since Nineveh" is perfect. Warren has a huge voice, but more than that, she has character. She slinks around the stage, seductively moving her hands and body while singing of the joys and mysteries of Baghdad. Warren's performance here promises a show of fantasy and style, but, ultimately, her "Not Since Nineveh" is the only taste of it we get in the whole show. No other number even tries to capture any hint of Arabian Night mysticism, not even "Rahadlakum," Lalume's second act tribute to an aphrodisiac.
But all of these uneven supporting performances might be forgiven if there was a drop-dead Hajj at Kismet's center. And Len Cariou does not give that kind of performance. His singing is at best unremarkable and at worst, sadly, straining and weak. He instead attempts to power through the role of the fast-talking poet on the strength of his personality. But he is under-rehearsed, forgetting some lines and stumbling over others. At most, he offers a genial Hajj, but not one smooth enough to charm the pants off everyone around him.
The most troubling part of his performance, because it should be easiest to fix, is his rendition of "Gesticulate," the song in which Hajj pleads to keep his hand, by convincing the Wazir of the importance hands play to a storyteller. During the song, Hajj tells a story and must captivate his audience with his physical expressions. But with all eyes on his hands, Cariou's motions are no more than routine. It's illustrative of the fundamental problem with this Kismet: There's no magic.
Kismet runs through February 1, 2004 at UCLA's Freud Playhouse. For tickets and information, click: www.reprise.org.
Reprise! Broadway's Best -- Marcia Seligson, Producing Artistic Director; Jim Gardia, Managing Director -- presents, in association with K-Mozart, Kismet, a Musical Arabian Night. Book by Charles Lederer and Luther Davis (Founded on a play by Edward Knoblock); Music and Lyrics by Robert Wright and George Forrest (From themes of A. Borodin). Scenic Design by Evan A. Bartoletti; Costume Design by Helen Butler and Jeff Transki; Lighting Design by Tom Ruzika; Sound Design by Philip G. Allen; Associate Music Director Mary Ekler; Music Coordinator Joe Soldo; Technical Director Peter Falco; Casting Director Bruce H. Newberg, C.S.A.; Production Stage Manager Jill Gold; Press Representative David Elzer/Demand PR; General Manager Kelly Estrella; Managing Director Jim Gardia. Produced by Marcia Seligson; Music Direction by Gerald Sternbach; Choreographed by Rob Barron; Directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman.