With rumours of backstage feuding between director Gary Griffin and choreographer Javier De Frutos, who withdrew from the production last week (See The Goss, 25 Jun 2007), a cancelled preview and newspaper editorials about the inappropriateness of staging a piece set in a mythic-style Baghdad with the real city is devastated by war, critics were expecting a disaster when English National Opera’s revival of the 1953 Broadway musical Kismet opened on Wednesday (27 June 2007) at the London Coliseum. And, by and large, their judgements fell in line with expectations.
The Arabian Nights-inspired piece – with a book by Charles Lederer and music and lyrics by Grand Hotel’s Robert Wright and George Forrest (after Russian composer Alexander Borodin) - follows the remarkable changes of fortune that engulf a poor poet during the course of one incredible day when Kismet (fate) takes control.
Michael Ball (pictured), Tony Award-winning Broadway star Faith Prince, Sarah Tynan and Alfie Boe lead the 130-strong company of musical theatre actors, opera singers and musicians. The production is conceived by Griffin (who also directs) in collaboration with Luther Davis and Kit Hesketh-Harvey and is designed by Ultz. Richard Hickox and Simon Lee conduct the orchestra.
First night critics deemed the decision to revive the “wincingly” dated Kismet, opening on the same day as Tony Blair’s departure from office, as a gross “miscalculation”. The musical’s faults, most felt, were “compounded by Gary Griffin’s “sparkle”-free production, with its “cheapskate” set, “boomy” amplification and “raggedly executed” dance sequences. Amongst the performances, Sarah Tynan and Alfie Boe’s singing received some praise, but really only musical stalwart Michael Ball emerged critically unscathed.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (two stars) – “What sets out to be a promising attempt to fulfil both musical theatre and light opera expectations of a score borrowed from Borodin and given the mid-1950s Broadway treatment by Robert Wright and George Forrest, ends up a misfired mish-mash … Michael Ball, kitted out in a series of voluminous night shirts, has filled out in body and voice, and plays with lots of characteristic charm. But the delightful Broadway star Faith Prince is wasted as the lovelorn Lalume, her big number ‘Not since Nineveh’ drowned in muzzy chorus work and messy staging. Other items, notably ‘Baubles, Bangles and Beads’, fail to shake off tatty pantomime connotations.”
Rupert Christiansen in the Daily Telegraph - “Although the singing is mostly good, the show, which has a design that looks tacky and cheapskate, lacks any sort of sparkle … This was always going to be a tricky one: Kismet was a smash hit on Broadway and in the West End in the Fifties, with a lushly pseudo-operatic score … But what once seemed gorgeously romantic - the tale of a poet turned beggar and his Arabian Night-style adventures in old Baghdad - has dated badly … The American director, Gary Griffin, labours under two severe handicaps. One is the rambling often incomprehensible plot and garrulous dialogue, too bland to be offensive … The other problem is the design. A show like this should give the reassuring impression that a ton of money has been thrown at it, but what Ultz provides looks tacky and desperately cheapskate … This is the stuff of provincial panto not a national opera company … Michael Ball, in the central role of the beggar-poet, puts his numbers across with irresistible gusto and delights his many fans. But for all their efforts, the show lacks any sort of energy or sparkle and the evening drags dismally.”
Fiona Maddocks in the Evening Standard (one star) – “Not since Nineveh, in the words of one of Kismet's hit songs, has a night at English National Opera felt so long, so dreary or so misconceived … This 1955 Broadway musical by Robert Wright and George Forrest camps up old Baghdad – ‘the symbol of happiness on earth!’ - in a way which now makes us cringe. At the interval, many rushed for the exit muttering ‘torture’ … Who on earth allowed this production to happen? No one should object to the Coliseum taking on musicals. Nor should political correctness squash artistic imperative. But Gary Griffin's staging, hideously designed in raspberry colours with acres of satin curtain and beaded fringing by Ultz, was both tactless and lily-livered, quite some feat … Michael Ball was alone in making the pantomimic lines sound credible. Tony Award winner Faith Prince, in her London debut as sexy Lalume, looked as if she'd rather be elsewhere. Sarah Tynan won warm applause for her charming Marsinah, well matched by Alfie Boe, the ex-car mechanic tenor, as Caliph.”
Richard Morrison in The Times (one star) – “A wily chancer makes an ill-fated expedition into Baghdad and gets into all sorts of scraps — only to wriggle free of trouble and to bow out in triumph. But enough about our former Prime Minister. What about this load of old cobblers that English National Opera has decided to resuscitate for reasons known only to itself? Well, if you crave a well-crafted plot, pacy drama, credible characterisation, scenic thrills, fabulous dancing, a subtle musical score and sharp-witted dialogue, don’t come anywhere near St Martin’s Lane. Kismet isn’t just cheesy; it’s the Blue Stilton of Broadway — a hopelessly trite, condescending, sentimentalised 1950s trip into an Arabian Nights Neverland … Cliche is piled on caricature … To compound its original sin, the company stages Kismet with all the flair of a damp squib. In front of Ultz’s camp, pink, flowery sets — I hope they are meant ironically, because if not they are pathetic — Gary Griffin’s production limps along like an amateur panto … And the amplification is often horribly boomy and aggressive … The cast deserves better. Mostly, anyway — for I’m afraid that Michael Ball’s legendary stage charisma passed me by … I haven’t even mentioned the excruciating tastelessness of staging a send-up of life in Baghdad at a time like this. What a miscalculation.”
Paul Callan in the Daily Express (three stars) – “It seems sadly ironic to be watching a magical musical set in the city of Baghdad at a time when the real place is beset with suicide bombers, death and terrible destruction. But, thankfully, Kismet suspends reality – no bad thing – and wills us back to the fantasy times of the Arabian Nights … But the show, lovingly brought back to the stage by the English National Opera, remains an oddity … Michael Ball brings great humour and movement to the part of the cunning poet and he is fine of voice. He shines with some of the show’s hit numbers and has a deft touch at comedy. Sarah Tynan as his daughter Marsinah has a glowingly attractive voice and is very easy on the eye … But, sad to say, this is a creaky old show and seems incredibly dated more than 50 years on … But all of this was utterly redeemed by the sheer beauty of Borodin’s exquisite music … His music survives with its passionate beauty intact.”
Tim Ashley in the Guardian (two stars) – “What on earth are we to make of Kismet nowadays? … By an ironic twist of fate (or kismet, if you prefer, since that's what the title means in Turkish), English National Opera's new production opened on the day of Tony Blair's departure from office. Given Blair's partial responsibility for the Iraq debacle, the incongruity between artistic statement and contemporary fact was inescapable. When we were told that ‘Baghdad is the symbol of happiness on earth’, it was impossible not to wince. ENO's decision to revive Kismet derives from the fact that it inhabits territory somewhere between musical and opera … Whether it works in its own right, however, is debatable … The production, meanwhile, had more than its fair share of vicissitudes before it opened … The tired, nervous quality that hampered the first night may disappear during the run, but it is by no means the grand spectacle one hoped for … The glaring fuchsia-pink walls of Ultz's set cramp the performers. The quasi-Balanchine dance routines, now credited to Nikki Woollaston, were raggedly executed. There are some fine central performances, though. Michael Ball, wide-eyed and impish, is wonderful as the Poet. Alfie Boe (the Caliph) does tremendous things with ‘Night of My Nights’ and woos Sarah Tynan's passionate Marsinah with genuinely convincing ardour. Vocally, the only disappointment is Faith Prince's Lalume.”
- by Terri Paddock