Jalāl ad-Dīn Mohammad Rūmī was a very interesting man. Better known as just Rumi, he was born in 1207 in Afghanistan and before his death 67 years later, he travelled all over the Middle East, married twice, had two sons and a step-daughter, studied religious law and the sciences, incorporated meditation, seclusion and fasting into his regime, became a highly respected theologian, at a very young age became the leader of his religious community,
amassed scores of disciples and even managed to develop religious whirling (of the Dervish kind). Even today three countries, Iran, Turkey and Afghanistan claim him as their national poet – an interesting life indeed.
Unfortunately the same can’t be said about Rumi: The Musical which is having a two day run at the London Coliseum. It purports to tell some of Rumi’s story and in Act One we meet the man himself, his wife Kara, his two sons, Sultan Valed and Aladdin (no not that one but how this show could have done with a fast-talking wisecracking Genie), step-daughter Kimya and Shams, a mysterious nomad and mystic who arrives in Konya where Rumi is living and becomes a friend and disciple and if you read the subtext, maybe even more than that.
In Act One, Shams indoctrinates himself into Rumi’s life and the two develop a bond that has undertones (or maybe even overtones) of a relationship that’s more than just friendship.
We also meet the rest of Rumi’s somewhat dysfunctional family with Aladdin and Kimya who are stepsiblings in love and wanting to marry. In act two, one of the characters makes a sudden move that is so out of character that I doubt anyone in the audience saw it coming as it made no sense to what had gone before. However, this action was the cause of two deaths that even Mystic Meg would have seen coming!
Originally conceived as a concept album, turning it into a full-blown musical just doesn’t work – you can always turn an album off. There are over 20 songs in the show and most of them are big ballads and when I say “big” ballads – they’re very big indeed and sung mainly out to the audience rather than to the other characters on stage. The dialogue is clunky and mainly consists of Rumi and Shams talking in riddles, throwing out an aphorism or two
without advancing the plot. As for the staging, the minimal set is dwarfed by the Coliseum’s vast stage and proscenium arch (the widest in London). There’s a lot of bringing on (and then taking off), cushions, rugs, tables and chairs and what look like American sports bleacher seats often for what looks like no reason but just to get some movement on stage.
There’s also some whirling (no Dervishes unfortunately) and twirling in a mystical Eastern manner from the 12-strong ensemble of singers and dancers who play the villagers of Konya and bring the props on and off the stage.
Although the bombastic power ballads get tiresome after a while (a very short while), Ramin Karimloo (Shams), Nadim Naaman (Rumi), Casey Al-Shaqsy (Kimya), Soophia Foroughi (Kara) and Ahmed Hamad (Aladdin) sing their lungs out and all sound superb but they can’t make up for the flaws in the material they’ve been given although they can blame Naaman who co-wrote the piece with Dana Al Fardan.
The one saving grace of this very long evening (nearly two and a half hours including the interval) was the 29-piece orchestra which comprised of traditional western instruments combined with middle eastern pieces such as the Ney, Rebab, Qanun and Oud which gave the music an evocative and exotic sound. As for the number of musicians, I got that from the programme as they were situated in the dark at the back of the vast stage and from my seat in the back row of the Royal Circle, they were probably in a different postcode.
The show is crying out for some light and shade and a bit of subtlety – how many power ballads can a show take before being sunk by the weight of their weightiness along with the po-faced dialogue and preachiness. There’s an article in the programme titled “Why Rumi?” – say no more.
Review by Alan Fitter
Based on a story about the 13th-century philosopher and poet Rumi by Evren Sharma, ‘Rumi: The Musical’ follows Al Fardan and Naaman’s 2018 debut musical, ‘Broken Wings’, which premiered in the West End at the Theatre Royal Haymarket before touring the Middle East.
The cast features Ramin Karimloo, Nadim Naaman, Casey Al-Shaqsy, Soophia Foroughi, Ahmed Hamad, Yazdan Qafouri, Johan Munir and Benjamin Armstrong, with an ensemble featuring Roshani Abbey, Amira Al Shanti, Eva-Theresa Chokarian, Maëva Feitelson, Sasha Ghoshal, Blythe Jandoo, Ediz Mahmut, Zara Naeem, Mark Samaras and Aliza Vakil.
‘Rumi: The Musical’ features a grand score that combines Middle Eastern authenticity with classical influences and contemporary musical theatre, with lyrics derived from Rumi’s poetry. It will premiere as a semi-staged concert on November 23 & 24. The live premiere follows the release of a full-length concept album on Broadway Records.
Produced by Ali Matar, ‘Rumi: The Musical’ is Directed by Bronagh Lagan and Choreographed by Anjali Mehra, with Musical Direction and Supervision by Joe and Nikki Davison and Middle Eastern Musical Supervision by Maias Alyamani. Set and Costume Design is by Gregor Donnelly, with Lightning Design by Nic Farman, Sound Design by Simon Hendry and Video Design by Matt Powell. Further Creatives include Aran Cherkez as Assistant Director, Natalie Pound as Assistant Musical Director and Mark Samaras as Assistant Choreographer.
Rumi: The Musical
Music & Lyrics by Dana Al Fardan
and Nadim Naaman
Book by Nadim Naaman
Based on a Story by Evren Sharma
St Martin’s Lane
London, WC2N 4ES
Tuesday 23 November, 2021 & Wednesday 24 November, 2021
Performance time: 7.30pm
Running time: 2hrs 20mins including interval