This year's Encores! concert series begins with the 1953 Broadway hit "Kismet," the story of a beggar-poet (Brian Stokes Mitchell) who falls in love with a wazir's wife (Marin Mazzie), a tale of love and longing set in ... Baghdad? OK, topical can be good, but that's just distracting. One could imagine the discussion that took place:
"How about we do this one? It's set in Baghdad."
"What about Baghdad?"
"It's set there."
"Well ... there's a dictator."
"And, umm, it's a satire of autocracy, classism, sexism, and ..."
OK, forget it. It's a romance, folks. Thankfully, director Lonny Price and script adapter David Ives decide against trying to shoehorn King Kong into a Jimmy Choo, and, once the show gets through those icky Baghdad references in the song "Not Since Nineveh" ("Our palaces are gaudier! Our alleyways are bawdier!"), the generically exotic locale might as well be Bombay or Timbuktu or Pluto.
Though this "Kismet" is a concert version, the production doesn't skimp on things to look at. There's a lot of sharp choreography, for one. "Movin' Out" Tony nominee Elizabeth Parkinson, a main dancer, is delightfully energetic from the minute she opens the show by emerging from behind a podium like a genie, one with a body that makes Barbara Eden look like Robin Williams. Scenic consultant John Lee Beatty deftly utilizes drapes and furniture to evoke a splendiferous Arabian Nights-era city without the luxury of sets.
Mitchell's voice never ceases to amaze, but he has such a naturally regal bearing that he could use a bit more time to get used to the role of a poor, scheming poet. Mazzie, Mitchell's Broadway co-star in the far-more-clever far-off-place musical "Kiss Me, Kate," fares better as the glamorous, sex-deprived wife of a wazir who is two heads shorter than she is. But these virtuoso performers get lost amid the machinations of the plot and never get to really go nuts.
The comedy here consists mainly of one-line groaners, especially since Danny Rutigliano doesn't take nearly enough advantage of the enticingly ripe role of the wazir with a Napoleon complex. By far the most amusing thing about this guy is his headwear, which looks like a turban with a 4-year-old's birthday hat stapled to it.
Despite these faults, there are some nice melodies that songwriters Robert Wright and George Forrest drew from the themes of the Russian composer Alexander Borodin, such as the ever-catchy "Stranger in Paradise.." And "Kismet" ticket-holders will at least be seeing something unique - this show won't be on Broadway anytime soon.
KISMET. Directed by Lonny Price; music directed by Paul Gemignani. New York City Center, West 55th Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues. Tickets $25-$90. Call 212-581-1212 or visit www.nycitycenter.org. Seen Thursday.