Unlike the musicals Rent (an update on Puccini’s La Boheme), and Miss Saigon (inspired by Puccini’s Madame Butterfly) both of which had all new music by other composers for their contemporary stories, Carmen Jones uses the original Bizet score. However, it is not simply an English translation. Hammerstein has written all new lyrics to place the story in a W.W. II Southern community (possibly North Carolina) and with the characters ending up in Chicago for the denouement. While Carmen Jones was a smash hit originally running for 503 performances at the Broadway Theatre during the war years, some like then critic James Baldwin found the dialect that Hammerstein had used for his African-American characters both embarrassing and demeaning, and the show has not had a New York revival until now. Notwithstanding, the first London production in 1991-92 was also a tremendous success at the Old Vic Theatre with a mix of both opera and theater stars in the cast.
As he did in his reimagined CSC versions of Sondheim’s Passion and Pacific Overtures, and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro, Doyle has taken minimalism in musicals about as far as one can go. The two act, full length, musical has been reduced to 105 minutes, though what has been cut mostly is dialogue rather than music, except for three numbers in the final scene. The audience sits on four sides of the rectangular playing area leaving no space to bring on sets. The only physical props are olive-drab boxes which are repositioned in each scene and a tent-like parachute which descends from the ceiling for the Chicago country club scene. The original (now prohibitive) cast of 101 plus two alternates who did not appear nightly in the show has been reduced to ten, using seven cast members as the ensemble. Original opera orchestra and orchestrations have been reduced to six musicians, piano, violin, cello, bass, French horn, and woodwinds, in the new orchestrations by Joseph Joubert.
This requires that many characters and incidents have had to be eliminated. Some actors do a bit of uncomfortable doubling so that Sally who reports Carmen for being late in the first scene, removes her jacket and becomes one of her best friends in the Billy Pastor Café scene which follows. Due to the use of the arena staging, wherever one looks one sees other members of the audience throughout the evening, though the cast does acknowledge their presence occasionally to flirt with them. The lack of scenery makes it difficult to know where this all takes place; except for references to Chicago, there is no explanation where the parachute plant is located either in the libretto or in the program. The luxurious country club scene (the original third act) is the most affected by this without any atmosphere and with not enough extras to fill up the stage. The fact that the cast does not include many opera singers does some damage to the score as this is not simply theater music but grand opera with difficult arias.
The Hammerstein libretto stays close to the original story of Carmen by finding modern equivalents. Carmen, the Gypsy factory girl, now works in a parachute factory guarded by the U.S. Army somewhere in the American South. The Spanish soldier Don José who ignores her and for whom she makes a play becomes Corporal Joe while his girlfriend from next door who comes to see him become Cindy Lou (Micaela in the original). When Carmen is arrested by Sergeant Brown (former Lt. Zuniga) for starting a riot, it is Joe who must take her to the stockade. However, she convinces the smitten Joe to let her go in order to have a date with her that night, and he gets arrested instead. At Billy Pastor’s Café (previously Lillas Pastia), Carmen meets heavyweight boxing prizefighter Husky Miller, changed from being toreador Escamillio in Bizet’s opera, and switches her affections to him. All of the main characters meet up in Chicago where Husky Miller is to fight a championship bout and as Joe has deserted to follow the unfaithful Carmen, the tragic denouement takes place.
Musically this Carmen Jones does not heat up until about a third of the way through, and Anika Noni Rose’s rendition of Carmen’s “Dat’s Love,” from Bizet’s world famous “Habanera” falls surprisingly flat. However, things improve greatly when Rose sings Carmen’s “Dere’s a Cafe on de Corner “(“Seguidilla”). As Joe, Clifton Duncan seems to be reaching for note in his songs “You Talk Just Like My Maw” (Parle-moi de ma mère) and “Dis Flower” (“The Flower Song”). Even more surprisingly, the temperature does not reach a fever pitch until the opening song of what was the opera’s second act, “Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum” (“Gypsy Song”) with the ensemble led by the sensational Soara-Joye Ross to choreography by Bill T. Jones. Husky Miller’s entrance brings David Aron Damane’s magnificent bass-baritone to the martial, “Stand Up and Fight.” The musical climax of the evening is soprano Lindsay Roberts’ singing of “My Joe” as Cindy Lou, Joe’s abandoned girlfriend.
The cast, however, is uniformly fine in the acting honors. From the moment Anika Noni Rose sashays onstage in her form-fitting orange dress, there is no taking your eyes off of her. She not only seduces both Joe and Husky Miller with a look, but her sensuality works on the audience as well. With his heroic physique, Damane brings great quiet presence to his Husky Miller and his singing is impressive. Roberts is charming as the innocent Cindy Lou and with her lush soprano takes the singing honors with her rich top notes. Although less impressive usically, Clifton Duncan (recently seen on Broadway in The Play That Goes Wrong) is fine as the confused Joe caught between two women.
The supporting cast doubling in named roles as well as members of the ensemble does yeomen service as they are on stage almost throughout the evening. Aside from Ross’s Frankie who heats up a storm in the café scene, there is feisty Sally played by Andrea Jones-Sojola and Erica Dorfler as the loyal Myrt. Tramell Tillman gives Sgt. Brown brooding depth, while Justin Keyes as Miller’s manager Rum Daniels brings a sinister shading to his underworld character. Lawrence E. Street gives able support as Rum’s sidekick Dink Franklin.
While the set by Scott Pask is almost non-existent, Adam Honoré’s subtle and atmospheric lighting design works like another character. Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes are also a bit of a puzzle. The men are obviously soldiers in olive-drab, but their camouflage pants suggest a later era than World War II, as do the women’s short bouffant skirts. However, her orange dress for Carmen and Carmen’s later red evening dress add greatly to Rose’s vixen characterization. Cindy Lou’s simple pale blue flowered print seems exactly what she would wear. Dan Moses Schreier is to be applauded for his tremendously lucid and clear sound design.
John Doyle’s production has all the advantages and disadvantages of his minimalist approach. In having the audience sit ringside to the action, there is an intimacy that is undeniable in what is usually a remote, epic telling of this tale. On the other hand, the doubling of the tiny cast is often distracting and confusing. The lack of scenery offers no atmosphere and makes the locations rather anonymous and often obscure. The cast members who do not appear to have had opera training are often at a loss for how to put over these iconic musical numbers. Nevertheless, the Classic Stage Company’s revival of the Oscar Hammerstein/Georges Bizet Carmen Jones proves to be thrilling, character-driven theater and a rediscovery of a forgotten treasure.
Carmen Jones (extended through August 19, 2018)
Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-677-4210 or visit http://www.classicstage.org
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission