The indestructible melodies of Johann Strauss and the lustrous voices of an all-star Broadway cast can't save this shockingly flat musical adaptation of Joseph Roth's novel about The Shah of Persia.
Apparently, director Harold Prince, choreographer Susan Stroman, librettist Richard Nelson, lyricist Ellen Fitzhugh, arranger Jonathan Tunick, and set designer Beowulf Boritt all thought it a jolly notion to turn Roth's story placed in turn-of-the-19th-century Persia and Vienna into a racy comic operetta -- while commandeering the evocative music of Johann Strauss. At least, the Strauss melodies prove to be indestructible.
Fortunately, as well, the lustrous voices of the predominantly Broadway-bred cast has laid on the merry airs: Mandy Patinkin, Judy Kaye, John McMartin, Shuler Hensley, George Lee Andrews (freed from Prince's Phantom of the Opera after a two-decade stint), Daniel Marcus, and Kate Baldwin have added their pure tones to the harmonious assembly.
The main problem is the story that Nelson challenges the audience to follow -- a virtually impossible assignment -- is really three interwoven stories involving McMartin's ED-suffering Shah, Patinkin's permanently ED-suffering eunuch (which allows Patinkin's well-known falsetto to get a work-out) and Hensley's potent Viennese Baron. Thinking to spur the Shah from his stupor, the eunuch suggests a trip to Vienna, where they encounter the baron. Quick as a wink, he takes the eunuch to a brothel run by Kaye's practical madam and inhabited by, among other hip-swiveling ladies-of-the-boudoir, the Baron's beloved Mizzi (Baldwin).
The complication in this now-it's-here-now-it's-there narrative is that the Shah falls for the Austro-Hungarian Empress at a state dinner, demands to sleep with her, and is fooled by the baron, the shah, and the scheming madam into dallying with her look-alike, the lovely Mizzi. The Shah gets what he wants, but the baron gets into hot water when the ruse becomes a public scandal. He's stripped of his rank, sent to the hinterlands and -- 15 years later -- returns penniless to look for Mizzi.
As the plot plods along, the familiar Strauss melodies waft through the air, albeit in different contexts, and the words Fitzhugh adds to them strain for wit, which is rarely achieved. This is notably so in "Feeing Good," a ditty about the joys of masturbation set to "The Skater's Waltz."