With book and lyrics by Jason Grote (based on 1001, his 2007 play), One Thousand Nights and One Day with music by Marisa Michelson wants to be several things at the same time. The eclectic music which begins and ends with New Age themes then resolves into Broadway, pop, solfege, and Middle Eastern melodies with a certain amount of operatic arias for the women singers thrown in. Like the story and the libretto, it can’t seem to make up its mind what it wants to be. While the ancient Persian section suggests an exotic locale to Americans, the physical production created by set designer Jason Ardizzone-West (mainly dark curtains) and costume designer Becky Bodurtha is drab where it should be colorful. A more elaborate design would have helped immeasurably to define the different eras and locations.
Narrated by the One-Eyed Arab, (interestingly played by Graham Stevens), who is not as funny as his lines suggest he thinks he is, the musical begins with the story of Persian King Shahriyar (Ben Steinfeld) who catches his wife in flagrante with a slave and has her killed. Wanting to avoid such an occurrence again, he decides to marry young virgins and behead them in the morning after the wedding night. Eventually, the only unmarried women left are the Wazir’s two daughters. However, Scheherazade (Sepideh Moafi) has an idea: she will marry the king and tell him stories every night but refuse to finish them before falling asleep.
Her second story, “The Tale of Alan in his Labyrinth” takes her literally to the modern city of Man Hat where Shahriyar and Scheherazade meet again at an Alan Dershowitz lecture at Columbia University. Steinfeld is now Alan, a Jewish man, and Moafi becomes Dahna, a Palestinian woman. After they go on a trip to Gaza, they move in together back home only to find her parents trying to match her up with a suitable Arab man. Eventually Man Hat is bombed and they are separated by the devastation. The musical ends with a call for unity between Arab and Jew in our times.
In performance, One Thousand Nights and One Day is a like a play with songs shoehorned in as none of them forward the story but take the emotional temperature of the characters instead. With all of the actors playing at least two parts, modern and ancient, with little costume change, it is often difficult to be certain where we are at any moment. Some play very similar characters, others play against their earlier incarnation. Erin Ortman’s direction is assured with the characterizations but she cannot solve the problems inherent in the writing.
In the double role of King Shahriyar and Alan, Steinfeld is bland and nerdy as both men which does not differentiate between the two. Moafi is much more assertive and confident as Scherazade/Dahna, and one wishes the musical was more about her. Stevens wisecracks his way through the roles of the narrator (One-Eyed Arab) and the Palestinian translator Mostafa due to lines he has been given. Yassi Noubahar makes a fine impression as Scheherazade’s nervous sister, and later Dahna’s trivial sister Lubna in modern times. The rest of the cast (Ashkon Davaran, Chad Goodridge, and Gabriella Pérez) appear in many roles both ancient and modern. Playwright Jason Grote and composer Marisa Michelson have an interesting idea but One Thousand Nights and One Day does not solve the problems they have set themselves.
One Thousand Nights and One Day (through April 29, 2018)
Prospect Theater Company
ART/New York Theatres, 502 W. 53rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit http://www.prospecttheater.org
Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission