What is “kismet”? This exotic-sounding word for “fate” or “destiny” descends from Arabic and entered the English language in the early 19th century by way of Turkish. It’s most often used in a romantic context, and ordinarily carries a positive connotation. When the ambitious classic Broadway musical titled Kismet comes to the Granada Theatre on October 23 and 24, it will represent that meaning in multiple ways.
Within the story of the show, kismet occurs when the love interests of the main characters are finally realized, and all apparent obstacles to a happy ending are overcome. As an episode in the ongoing saga of Santa Barbara’s performing arts scene, Kismet represents kismet in another way, as it applies equally well to the happy ending of our prolonged separation from the pleasures of live, in-person concerts and theater. Finally, this particular production of Kismet reflects the kismet of a lifetime of positive karma in the person of its producer, Sara Miller McCune, who has made many extraordinary contributions to the arts in Santa Barbara through her support of our arts organizations.
McCune, who will turn 81 in February, first conceived of this grand project in anticipation of her 80th birthday, before the COVID pandemic slowed theater production to a standstill. Undeterred, and with the assistance of a team that included the Santa Barbara Symphony, State Street Ballet, and Broadway producer Ken Davenport, she persevered, and thanks to her indomitable spirit, Kismet has come to pass.
When I spoke with Miller McCune by phone last week, she was filled with energy and enthusiasm from a recent meeting with the large cast and crew of the show that took place outdoors at State Street Ballet’s Gail Towbes Center, where the show has been rehearsing. “They’re a great gang,” she said of the many actors, dancers, singers, and musicians this major production employs, “and it felt tremendous to be with them as they all return to work.” Upon meeting the actors who will play the two romantic leads, Ani Djirdjirian (Marsinah) and Ariel Neydavoud (the Caliph), Miller McCune was moved to remark, “I can see why you’re going to fall in love” — another recognition of kismet in action.
What can audiences expect from Kismet? First of all, this show represents the opening of the season for both the Santa Barbara Symphony and State Street Ballet, so there will be ravishing orchestral music conducted by Nir Kabaretti, all of it based on the compositions of Russian composer Alexander Borodin. Kabaretti singles out the score’s colorful and brilliant orchestration as one of the most symphonic of all Broadway musicals. For William Soleau, the show’s choreographer and co-artistic director of State Street Ballet, this was a chance to create an entirely new set of dances. Times have changed since 1953 when the show premiered, and director Lonny Price asked Soleau to develop dances that would move the plot forward and provide opportunities for the company’s corps of dancers to showcase their talents.
Price, who has a distinguished record directing on Broadway, having helmed such major productions as the musical of Sunset Boulevard, was a key participant in Miller McCune’s plans from the start. It was Price who supervised the casting of the actors, nearly all of whom identify as MENASA (Middle Eastern, North African, South Asian). Since Kismet takes place in Baghdad during the time of the 1,001 Nights, the characters are all members of the same Muslim community. As a result, and out of consideration for issues of justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion, the production of the show and its rehearsal process has been guided by a series of interventions from experts in cultural sensitivity. New York University professor of Arab Theater and Film Studies Naila Al Atrash vetted the script, and Judy Guillermo-Newton and Jarrod Schwarz conducted an inclusive workshop on September 27 for the entire team in order to ensure that this encounter with the Arab Muslim world through the work would be a productive learning experience for everyone involved.
It’s the show’s most famous song that sums up what Miller McCune saw in Kismet that made her want to bring it here. Marsinah and the Caliph meet in a beautiful garden and begin to fall in love. This moment of romantic kismet becomes a song, and then a duet with the memorable title “Stranger in Paradise.” As a way of explaining the personal significance of the project, Miller McCune said that since we live in paradise, she wanted to make sure that we didn’t remain strangers.
Kismet will be performed Saturday, October 23, at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, October 24, at 2:30 p.m. For tickets and information, visit granadasb.org or call the box office at (805) 899-2222.