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Return of the Orientalist Fantasy, Kismet

May 27, 2017

“Kismet” means destiny, a word borrowed from Turkish. As a 1953 Broadway musical, it has music borrowed from Alexander Borodin, mostly his Prince Igor, but also from his string quartets. Its biggest hit, “Stranger in Paradise,” is right out of Prince Igor’s “Polovtsian Dances,” and the also well-known “Baubles, Bangles, and Beads” is from String Quartet No. 2.

Based on a play by Edward Knoblock, the wild-and-woolly story, set in a phantasmagorical Baghdad, has lyrics, musical adaptation, and some original music by Robert Wright and George Forrest. Originating in Los Angeles, Kismet moved to San Francisco, and then to Broadway, where — starring Alfred Drake — it won the 1954 Tony for Best Musical.

Success followed it in London and elsewhere; there was a film version (with Howard Keel) and later performances at the New York City Opera. But in recent times, it hasn’t been produced frequently, so grab the opportunity offered by 42nd Street Moon, champion of forgotten and rarely performed musical works.

The company, which is in the habit of surprising presentations, such as commissioning and presenting a new “old-fashioned” musical, will do something unexpected with Kismet. Rather than staging it in the 192-seat Gateway Theater — its home base — Kismet will have two concert-version performances, June 2 and 3, in the Marines’ Memorial Theater, which has a large stage and 564 seats. Instead of the usual piano or duo accompaniment, there will be a 23-piece, onstage orchestra.

“Presenting a musical in concert has its own advantages and challenges compared to doing a more traditional production,” says Company Executive Director Daniel Thomas, who is also music director for Kismet.

“There is minimal staging involved in a concert version, which allows the audience to focus fully on the music, lyrics, and libretto. It also requires our actors to work harder on their onstage relationships and characterizations, as they can’t rely on sets and costumes to help establish place and time.” These performances will have a narrator, company co-founder Stephanie Rhoads, to help tell the story. (Greg MacKellan, the other founder, left at the end of last year).

Singing the role of Haaj (listed elsewhere as Hajj) is Chris Vettel. The evil Wazir is Jason Graae (of Scrooge fame), Elise Youssef is Lalume, Jennifer Mitchell is Marsinah, Noel Anthony is the Caliph, and there is a large additional cast and chorus.

Despite having attended concert versions of operas and musicals for decades, I just recently learned about the Actors’ Equity requirement for a short rehearsal schedule: The entire show must be put up in under 29 hours of rehearsal. “I consider that to be a fun challenge,” Thomas says bravely.

“It’s the ‘shot-out-of-a-cannon’ version of doing a musical, which requires everyone to be on top of their game for the entire week. And more often than not, because you really don’t have the time to dwell or worry, you tap into a part of your brain that brings out really interesting and natural performances. It’s an incredible amount of work — and fun — and suddenly it’s over.”

Kismet is the right choice for the company’s first concert production, according to Thomas:

The music obviously lends itself to a fuller treatment than we would normally present in a traditional staging. The lushness of Borodin’s music and the interplay between the actors (who are singing lines originally written for instruments) and the orchestra get to be highlighted here — as are the orchestrations: some of the music is adapted quite faithfully from the original symphonies, dances and tone poems, while other pieces receive a much more “modern” (meaning mid-20th century) feel — there’s not a lot of classical scores where the tempo indication reads “not too fast — but ‘rock’ it.”

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].