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It Was Destined: Pappas Revives 'Kismet' for the Opera Pacific

February 05, 1988|JAN HERMAN | Times Staff Writer

Kim Criswell, who jokingly refers to herself as "white trash from Chattanooga," vamped across the rehearsal floor in shiny black tights and white spike heels studded with rhinestones.

Cast in "Kismet" as Lalume, the royal trash of Baghdad, the singer flashed a mock bedroom smile that could have lit the desert at midnight, let alone the mammoth backstage studio at the Orange County Performing Arts Center during a run-through last week.

Theodore Pappas, who was directing the Opera Pacific production for tonight's Segerstrom Hall premiere, stood transfixed--though not for long. By the time Criswell had belted out the final note of "Not Since Nineveh," her not-quite-burlesque siren song, Pappas' eyes were rolling.

"Again!" he steamed, pointing an accusing finger at the male chorus for failing to move in unison.

It took two repeats of the song's finale--and each time Criswell had to be lifted shoulder high--before Pappas was satisfied. Then he moved on to other numbers, a man seemingly obsessed by perfection, watching eagle-eye through aviator-style glasses, pacing with his hands on his hips, clapping to halt what he didn't like, briskly praising what he did.

Later, in a lunchtime interview, Pappas, 32, explained his driven working style as a hamburger and fries grew cold: "I like revivals if they're done brilliantly. I don't like them if they're a shadow of a previous production or if they assume that when an audience loves a show it's an excuse to give them less. I want everything to be clean, dynamic, decisive."

And lavish.

Except for changes in the cast and chorus, Pappas said tonight's "Kismet" is essentially the same $2-million physical production designed and built for the Canadian Opera Company, which presented it in Toronto two years ago under his direction.

(Pappas also mounted this revival with the same ornate sets and costumes last December--in Detroit for Michigan Opera Theatre and in Dayton, Ohio, for the Dayton Opera Company--at the invitation of Opera Pacific's general director, David Dichiera, who heads those companies as well.)

An elaborate rags-to-riches piece of Broadway fluff, "Kismet" is filled with bawdy comedy and harem hokum, hit-parade chestnuts such as "Stranger in Paradise," "This Is My Beloved" and "Baubles, Bangles and Beads," and a beribboned, cotton-candy ambiance that teems with 42 players hoping to live happily ever after for the next three weeks at the Performing Arts Center.

The wedding-cake story centers around a rhyming rogue named Hajj (David Chaney), who flogs poems in the bazaar but is more successful as a finagler; his beautiful daughter Marsinah (Beverly Lambert), who falls in love with the young Caliph (Brent Barrett), and vice versa; the Wazir (Avery Saltzman), chief Keystone Kop of Baghdad, who mistakes Hajj for a wise man, and the Wazir's wife, Lalume, who takes Hajj for her lover.

"I love the show because the style allows me lots of liberties," said Criswell, who played Grizabella, the Glamour Cat, in the Los Angeles production of "Cats" at the Shubert Theatre. "It's totally campy, somewhere between '50s MGM and Mesopotamia. It ain't Sam Shepard. And I get laughs. In 'Cats' I cried buckets. By the time I arrived in kitty-cat heaven I had to take out my contacts to clean off the mascara."

"Kismet," originally produced as a musical by Edwin Lester's Los Angeles Civic Light Opera Assn. in 1953, flirted with camp from the beginning (though the term was not in use). When the show wowed Broadway with Alfred Drake as Hajj, Joan Diener as Lalume and Richard Kiley as the Caliph four months after its premiere at Philharmonic Auditorium, a disapproving Walter Kerr of the New York Times noted its "tongue-in-cheek raillery" and "battered burlesque wheezes."

In fact, despite "Kismet's" popular appeal in thousands of summer stock productions over the years, the magic carpet ride has crashed many times, most ignominiously in the 1955 movie musical directed by Vincente Minnelli for MGM.

Mere mention of that "Kismet," which starred Howard Keel as Hajj, Ann Blyth as Marsinah, Dolores Gray as Lalume and Vic Damone as the Caliph, brings a grimace to Pappas' face.

"It's terrible," he said. "What's worse, it spread the misconception that one of the funniest musicals ever written is stiff and dull. Minnelli didn't want to do the picture. He wanted to direct a movie about Vincent van Gogh with Kirk Douglas ('Lust for Life'). So he made a deal. He would direct 'Kismet' if they gave him Van Gogh. He just tossed it together."

For all that, as several reviewers have noted, "Kismet" is one of those musicals where audiences go into the theater humming the tunes--thanks to arranger/lyricists Robert Wright and George Forrest and the 19th-Century Russian scientist Aleksandr Borodin, a Sunday composer whose opera "Prince Igor" served as the basis for their Tony Award-winning score.

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