TIMBUKTU, a musical with music and lyrics by Robert Wright and George Forrest, from themes of Alexander Borodin and African folk music; book by Luther Davis, based on the musical by Charles Lederer and Luther Davis, and the play by Edward Knoblock; directed, choreographed and costumed by Geoffrey Holder; scenery by Tony Straiges; lighting by James Riley; musical direction by Philip Fradkin; produced by Zev Buffman and Luther Davis.
With Eartha Kitt, Gregg Baker, Vanessa Shaw, Bruce A. Hubbard, Martial Roumain, Cheryl Cummings, P. L. Brown, Louis Tucker and Donald H. Coleman.
At the National Theater through September 2.
One of the many mysteries of "Timbuktu!" is why Eartha Kitt doesn't collapse from the stress of raising and lowering her eyelashes, which look as though they must have been outfitted in the drapery department at Neiman Marcus.
The show itself, which swept into Washington last night for a return visit, has a good deal in common with those jeweled eyelashes. It's colorful, exotic, physically dazzling and about as subtle as a herd of elephants.
"Timbuktu!" is an Africanization of the 1953 musical "Kismet," itself a merger of material from the Arabian Nights Tales and the public-domain music of Alexander Borodin. Songwriters Robert Wright and George Forrest, who had used the music of Edward Greig for an earlier success called "Song of Norway," collaborated on "Kismet" with librettist Luther Davis, and all three participated in "Timbuktu!" 25 years later.
The plot involves a soothsayer, his beautiful daughter and their adventures at the court of the noble Mansa of Mali, where law and order is maintained by the crooked Wazir and his sultry wife of wives, Sahleem-La-Lune.
The plot, of course, is absolutely irrelevant. What's relevant are the resoundingly familiar songs (including "Strangers in Paradise," "And This Is My Beloved" and "Night of My Nights"), the rich voices of the cast members who sing them, the radiant costumes and steamy choreography of Geoffrey Holder, and the fact that Sahleem-La-Lune is portrayed, with a vengeance, by Eartha Kitt.
With a comic delivery strongly reminiscent of Mae West's (and a West-like army of musclemen, too), Kitt is one musical comedy star who knows how to get a laugh. Once she has gotten one, however, she absolutely refuses to yield it. Every line, every glance, every double-take is stretched out to at least 250 percent of its full comic value, and punctuated with pauses so gaping that another entire script could be performed inside them.
Kitt has also exercised the star's prerogative of using "body mike," the mobile microphone that is the curse of the modern musical theater. And, as happens more often than not, there were sound problems last night -- just the usual mixture of static and reverberations and wild fluctuations in tone and volume.
Perhaps to keep up with her, the other cast members occasionally display a tendency to scream their lines. But Gregg Baker, Vanessa Shaw and Bruce A. Hubbard are graceful and attractive performers, especially when it's time for a song.
Because of a last-minute cancellation, the National Theatre has been vacant all summer, so it was apparently a choice of "Timbuktu!" or nothing at all. That being the case, we should be thankful for "Timbuktu!"