Despite strong casting, 'Rumi: The Musical' fails to impress

© Al-Araby Al-Jadeed

When it comes to the stage musical, those that borrow from Middle Eastern and North African cultures have historically kept MENA talent out of the limelight.

From Andrew Lloyd Webber’s long-running Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat to the cinematic adaptations of Prince of Egypt and Aladdin, not to mention the pantomime version of the latter, these shows have often seen white or non-MENA people of colour filling the main roles.

So it was more than exciting to learn Rumi: The Musical would buck this trend by exclusively forming its company with performers of Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian heritage.

"Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi’s movement across the Middle East and Central Asia, as a refugee and migrant, has meant Iran, Turkey and Afghanistan have all claimed him as their own with his spiritual writing and teachings proving influential across these regions and beyond for the last 800 years"

One of them is British-Lebanese actor Nadim Naaman, who plays the titular role and also wrote the book based on a story by Turkish writer Evren Sharma. Qatari composer Dana Al Fardan, who had previously collaborated with Naaman on the 2018 show ‘Broken Wings’, together co-wrote the music and lyrics for this two-hour 30-minute exploration into the personal and philosophical world of therenowned 13th Century poet, Sufi mystic and Islamic scholar.

It certainly makes sense that the cast and creatives would be made up of such diverse talent: Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi’s movement across the Middle East and Central Asia, as a refugee and migrant, has meant Iran, Turkey and Afghanistan have all claimed him as their own with his spiritual writing and teachings proving influential across these regions and beyond for the last 800 years.

Nowadays he’s been embraced by the West too; you might see his quotes popping up against sunset backdrops on Instagram and he’s one of the best-selling poets in the US but his major works came after he met the wandering mystic Shams of Tabriz, a bromance of sorts which forms the basis of this musical tale.

Shams is performed with playful charisma by the Iranian-Canadian Tony and Olivier nominee Ramin Karimloo; in his opening solo “Find My Guide” Shams yearns to find a spiritual companion, an equal, who can teach him as much as he could teach them and his path leads him to Konya where Rumi is feeling restless (“Only You”) with the routine of his life.

A father to two sons - Aladdin (Ahmed Hamad) and Sultan Valed (Yazdan Qafouri) - from his late wife and step-daughter Kimya (Casey Al-Shaqsey) from his current wife Kara (Soophia Foroughi), the theologian is seeking new enlightenment; he wants to be reinvigorated by a new teacher and Shams proves to be that guide.

However, this newfound relationship inspires envy in some of his disciples (“Mad Man”) and they contrive to remove Shams influence on their Mawlana. Meanwhile, Aladdin and Kimya are secretly in love and are waiting for the right moment to inform their parents (“When”) but a post-interval development devastates their plan.

It’s a simple enough plot, informed by both Franklin D. Lewis’s Rumi: Past and Present, East and West and Shahram Shiva’s Rumi’s Untold Story, and the centring of a platonic relationship between two men -- though some have argued it was more romantic -- that inspired one of them to write his most profound verses on love and the light within us all is a rather refreshing and beautiful direction to take for a musical.

The care through which Naaman and Al Fardan weave Rumi’s poetry into the lyrics and small moments of dialogue show a deep understanding of his timeless ideology that feels especially resonant intoday’s modern world still fractured by social and cultural differences.

However, that seamlessness was less effective in the delivery of the production as a whole. So much focus is on Shams and Rumi that the secondary relationships with his children and wife, and them with each other, felt superficial and underdeveloped meaning the post-interval plot struggled to invest you emotionally in their journeys.

"I would have loved to have waxed lyrical about a musical like Rumi but the dynamic brilliance of the cast recording hasn’t quite been translated to the stage"

Static performances, under Bronagh Lagan’s direction, only added to this disjointedness; the actors appeared unsure what to do with their bodies and with each other, mostly choosing to stand still, when the stakes were at their highest. The sparse set design - limited to three thin arches located stage-left, a few props to establish certain scenes at Rumi’s home and a giant moon as a backdrop to the actors and orchestra onstage - only added to this visual blandness.

The transitions between dialogue and songs often felt stilted as though the actors were waiting for the music to begin rather than it being a fluid continuation of that thought or idea where words alone could not fully emote the sentiment. Certainly, listening back to the cast recording I could appreciate the songs far more than at the London Coliseum.

Sat in Row K of the dress circle, it was a strain to hear the lyrics from the opening number despite the calibre of vocal talent on display. I would say this was down to the sound mixing for Joe Davison’s multicultural orchestrations, which blends your typical West End sensibilities with a Middle Eastern instrumental flavour, often drowned out Nikki Davison’s vocal arrangements especially during crescendos.

At one point it sounded like someone had forgotten to turn Juhan Monir’s mic on. The dance numbers, choreographed by Anjali Mehra, including a few Whirling Dervishes added some much-needed spectacle to the proceedings but a sense of harmony between the actors, who surprisingly did not dance, and the chorus line was rarely achieved.

I would have loved to have waxed lyrical about a musical like Rumi but the dynamic brilliance of the cast recording hasn’t quite been translated to the stage. The MENA talent is certainly there, I only wish this production did them all justice.

Hanna Flint is a freelance film and TV critic, writer and interviewer who writes for The Guardian, Total Film, Time Out, Syfy, Yahoo Movies, SyFy and other international outlets.

Follow her here: @HannaFlint