By BEN BRANTLEY
It takes a special wizardry to ride the wild waves of the score of “Kismet.” Based on works by the 19th-century Russian composer Alexander Borodin (including his opera “Prince Igor”), the songs of this exotic Broadway curiosity from 1953 swell, swirl, crash and trickle in patterns that your average musical-comedy performer is hardly used to surfing. And do you think it’s easy to make light comic and romantic hay from a word like “Rahadlakum” (the title of a second-act lust duet), while dressed like an extra from “Sinbad the Sailor”?
Fortunately, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie, the resourceful stars of this production of “Kismet,” which opened this season’s Encores! series of American musicals in concert at City Center, have the lungs, the presence and the plain old chutzpah to stay afloat in the show’s churning seas. Paired in a full-length musical for the first time since they played the merrily dueling divas in the 1999 Broadway revival of “Kiss Me, Kate,” Mr. Mitchell and Ms. Mazzie emerge unbowed from the vicissitudes of “Kismet,” with nary a scratch in their armored charisma.
Pretty much everyone else involved with this production — with the exception of the redoubtable Paul Gemignani, who this season replaces Rob Fisher as the Encores! musical director, and the orchestra — appears to have been reduced to treading water and praying for rescue. With a book by Charles Lederer and Luther Davis (based on a teeth-gnasher of a melodrama from 1911 by Edward Knoblock), and those ripe Borodin tunes translated into Broadwayese by Robert Wright and George Forrest, “Kismet” is a tough nut to crack open for contemporary audiences — or to stay in the mood of things, let’s make it a tough fig to peel.
“Kismet,” which runs through tomorrow at City Center, is one of the odder shotgun marriages of high and low culture to have been conducted on the stages of Broadway, a sort of theatrical equivalent of the old “Silly Symphonies” cartoons. Wright and Forrest, who had struck it big by mining the compositions of Edvard Grieg for “Song of Norway” in 1944, performed similar duties with Borodin, transforming music from the Polovtsian dances in “Prince Igor” and the Nocturne, respectively, into the Eisenhower-era chart toppers “Stranger in Paradise” and “And This Is My Beloved.”