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THEATER REVIEW : Real-Life Events in Iraq Fail to Spoil a Jolly 'Kismet'


En route to the San Gabriel Civic Auditorium to see the Music Theatre of Southern California's production of "Kismet," we heard that Baghdad-based Saddam Hussein was sending more of his troops closer to the Kuwaiti border.

Inside the theater, we heard the chorus singing the jolly strains of "Not Since Nineveh" ("Baghdad, this irresistible town!"). "Kismet" was always kitschy, but in the post-Gulf War era, it has become downright surreal.

Of course, director Bill Shaw and crew had no idea of Saddam's intentions, but while watching this "Kismet," it's fun to imagine what the folks backstage were thinking as news from the real world started intruding on their confectionary Baghdad.

Wisely, Shaw refuses to insert any timely jokes into the already complex book by Charles Lederer and Luther Davis. Zale Kessler as the funny, evil Wazir uncannily resembles Saddam, but that's the only hint of modernity to be found.

What can be found is some very strong singing, especially by Bob Lauder, as Jr.'s Poet, the show's lucky hero.

Lauder has a wealth of opportunities to show off his voice in this alternately gorgeous and hammy score, adapted by Robert Wright and George Forrest from Alexander Borodin's opera, "Prince Igor." Indeed, Lauder has virtual arias, and Act II's four-voice "And This Is My Beloved" (which includes Lauder, Kessler, and Ann Winkowski and Ivan Rutherford as the lovers) is Verdi-like in its passions and excess.

Sometimes, the score and book are pure excess. In fact, the musical was a '50s creation of the L.A. Civic Light Opera, and the show biz pull is obvious, especially in the bump-and-grind dance numbers. Choreographer Rikki Lugo can do very little to escape from the musical's built-in terpsichorean tastelessness (care of Jack Cole), just as Shaw can do little to update the show.

Still, Shaw or somebody with the San Gabriel-based company should have returned the set to its sender, the Tri Cities Opera Co. The best view of this show is in the back of the house, where it looks and sounds charming; closer in, the design's tackiness becomes overwhelming.

Consistently well spoken and smartly tongue-in-cheek, none of the leads takes anything seriously here except for the music, which alone is a good reason for local theater companies to revive "Kismet"--despite the harsh news from the real world.

* "Kismet," San Gabriel Civic Auditorium, 320 S. Mission Blvd., San Gabriel. Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays and Saturday, Oct. 22, 2 p.m. through Oct. 23. Tickets: $20 to $40. (800) 474-2484 or (213) 480-3232.

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