Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie in Kismet
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie
in Kismet
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Marin Mazzie sure knows how to make an entrance. Fifteen minutes into Kismet, she arrives on the City Center stage as Lalume, wife of wives to Baghdad's Wazir, decked head-to-toe in gold and hoisted on a chaise by four shirtless male servants. Within minutes, Mazzie gives us a full-blown characterization of this sex-starved vixen -- a brassy, gum-chewing, nail-filing blonde who could be a distant ancestor of Lily Garland (Mazzie's last stage triumph), with a brassy, belting voice to match. As the final notes of the spirited number "Not Since Nineveh" sound, your wish is that Mazzie won't leave the stage for the next two hours. But, alas, the genie does not grant this wish.

Anyone who's familiar with this classic 1953 musical, which ran for nearly 600 performances in its original Broadway production, knows that Lalume isn't the ornate fantasy's central character. That distinction belongs to The Poet, called Hajj, a rakish fellow whose interest in gaining riches leads him astray and almost leads to the death of his virginal daughter, Marsinah. Fortunately, he manages to right all of Baghdad's wrongs before the final curtain. This is the kind of larger-than-life role that practically begs the star to constantly steal the spotlight; it was ideally suited to the talents of the show's original leading man, Alfred Drake, and to those of Howard Keel, who played the part in the 1955 film version.

It should also be a perfect fit for Brian Stokes Mitchell, no stranger to larger-than-life roles or stepping into Drake's shoes, as he did in Kiss Me, Kate. But, at Thursday night's performance, it appeared that there's still some tailoring left to do. Mitchell was in fine voice, yet his acting seemed somewhat tentative. He relied a bit too much on the script, and he also seemed to have decided to play The Poet with a subtlety that suits neither the role nor the vast cavern that is City Center. Not surprisingly, he seemed most comfortable in his second act interactions with Mazzie, with whom he has co-starred on three previous occasions. They truly bring out the best in each other.

Director Lonny Price has failed to ignite Kismet in this production, instead giving us a genial, pleasant show that lacks the necessary brightness and sharpness. Price's staging is unnecessarily busy, with company members wandering around and through the 41-piece orchestra (led by the brilliant Paul Gemignani) and constantly pulling focus from the main action. Admitedly, making this patchwork musical consistently glisten and gleam isn't the easiest of assignments. Kismet meshes a rather hokey musical comedy book -- slightly condensed by David Ives for this production -- with a tuneful score by Robert Wright and George Forrest, one that borrows the lush melodies of the classical composer Alexander Borodin.

Elizabeth Parkinson (center) and ensemble  in Kismet
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Elizabeth Parkinson (center) and ensemble
in Kismet
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
The show's ballads are stirring, but most of its comedy numbers do little more than pass the time. Take "Bored," which was written for the film and which shows up here towards the end of Act I; the number fails to score despite Mazzie's expert efforts. "Was I Wazir?" might elicit more laughs if the role of the oily judge had been given to someone other than Danny Rutigliano, who comes off as a second-rate Danny DeVito with a second-rate singing voice. (Rutigliano's part in the quartet "And This Is My Beloved" has been reassigned to the full-voiced Michael. X. Martin).

Most of the show's laughs come from two beloved actors in a pair of smallish, non-singing roles: Tom Aldredge as the robber Jawan and Randall Duk Kim as the famed poet Omar Khayyam. You may also find yourself smiling during the rather silly "Rahadlakum," which gives choreographer Sergio Trujillo a chance to show off. This number also makes somewhat better use of the large ensemble and the amazing Elizabeth Parkinson, who otherwise spends a lot of time on stage to little effect.

Conversely, Marcy Harriell manages to make every moment count. This underappreciated actresss completely captures Marsinah's sweetness, winningly trills "Baubles, Bangles, and Beads," and brings down the house during the final section of "And This Is My Beloved." (Her shimmering soprano may come as a surprise to those who know her work in Rent or Lennon, in which she was only able to display her powerful lower register.) As her onstage romantic interest, the Caliph, Danny Gurwin is somewhat miscast -- the role requires a stronger, more masculine presence -- but he sings the part with aplomb.

This Kismet isn't an evening in paradise; it's more like a trip to an Arabian theme park. Fortunately, Marin Mazzie's performance is worth the price of admission.