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It is hard not to feel this is strange timing. You leave politicians arguing about the wreck of Iraq on the evening news and when you arrive at the theatre here is a camp chorus line of young women in pastel-blue burqas and pale-skinned young men twirling around the stage, hymning Baghdad, city of beauty.
The show is Wright and Forrest’s 1953 musical Kismet, getting its first outing in London for 30 years. If nothing else, its reappearance now is a sign of the competition for the cross-over classical market. English National Opera is clearly hoping to build on its success with Bernstein’s On the Town last year, but the rivalry is hotting up. Over the river the Southbank Centre is preparing to present not only Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd but also the Bizet / Oscar Hammerstein Carmen Jones. Lovers of musicals have rarely had it so good from the capital’s subsidised arts companies.
At least, that is the theory. Sitting through the press night of Kismet on Wednesday, one could only wonder what made ENO decide to follow Bernstein’s sassy musical with this dated mish-mash and, even worse, how they could have made such a hash of it.
The score claims a fine pedigree. Asked to raid the classics to create a musical based on the Arabian Nights, Wright and Forrest made a good choice in Borodin and there is plenty of exotic musical glamour.
The problem is the plot. In the 1950s a tale about a poet in 11th-century Baghdad who finds himself held up as a worker of miracles must have looked innocent enough, despite the occasional jibes at Islam, but today it involves walking a cultural tightrope. It is almost certainly impossible to give the show bite by updating it. But setting it in the picture-book Arab world of the 1950s MGM film would look horribly old-fashioned.
Faced with this dilemma, ENO’s director, Gary Griffin, has delivered a production that is neither one thing nor the other. Ultz’s sets look cheap and ugly, while the dialogue has been left blissfully naive of contemporary issues.
At the line “Go out and find me 50 happy people in Baghdad” the audience did not know whether to sit in embarrassed silence or risk a knowing chuckle. By the time the traders from the souk came on to sell their “Baubles, bangles and beads”, I was tempted to call out: “Do you sell flying carpets too? I want to get out of here!”
The singers do the best they can. Michael Ball (pictured below) sounds splendid, even if his jollity in the role of the poet- turned-miracle worker becomes a bit wearing. Sarah Tynan turns in a nicely sung performance as his daughter Marsinah and wins Alfie Boe in the role of The Caliph. With Faith Prince bringing Broadway chutzpah as Lalume and Donald Maxwell showing a good line in comic timing as Omar Khayyam, ENO has assembled a fine cast. The conductor, Richard Hickox, is guarantor of high standards and even higher volume.
Those are genuine virtues. The only miracle about this show is why a theatre full of intelligent adults in 2007 should want to watch such a load of piffle.
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