Carmen: An Afro Cuban Jazz Musical, co-produced by Olney Theatre Center and Tectonic Theater Project, takes the tragic heroine of Bizet’s 1875 opera and transports her to Cuba in 1958, when the island nation was on the brink of revolution.
Although the setting may be altered, the plot will be familiar to those who know the original Carmen; this Carmen (Christina Sajous) is still a smuggler, though here she is bringing arms to rebels fighting the Batista government, and she wins the love of José (Brandon Andrus), a soldier in Batista’s army who eventually changes sides to fight with Castro’s rebels. However, when Carmen leaves José for the champion boxer Camilo (Caesar Samayoa), a replacement for Bizet’s toreador Escamillo, Carmen’s tragic fate is sealed.
Arturo O’Farrill takes Bizet’s well-known melodies and infuses them with the electric rhythm and syncopated swing that are the essence of Afro-Cuban Jazz. The music is the real event of Carmen, and the orchestra, led by Christopher Youstra, truly drives the piece. Virtuoso singing from every member of the cast, from Carmen and José to the members of the ensemble, complete the experience.
Christina Sajous is astonishing as Carmen; her voice is powerful and dynamic and her performance perfectly embraces the intersection between opera and jazz in a way that keeps the somewhat odd combination of performance styles from being at all jarring. Her Carmen is powerful, confident and abrasive, while still being utterly magnetic. Despite the power of Sajous’s performance, the other members of the cast are not overshadowed – Michelle Alves leads the audience through the titular character’s tragedy as narrator/friend Fina, and Caesar Samayoa is extremely appealing as the ultra-macho boxer Camilo.
The combination of the staging by author/director Moisés Kaufman and choreography by Sergio Trujillo results in some of the most beautiful movement sequences I have seen on stage; the masterful combination of frenetic movement and isolated stillness, accented by David Lander’s colorful and dynamic lighting design are, at times, breathtaking.
CARMEN: AN AFRO-CUBAN JAZZ MUSICAL
February 10 – March 6
Olney Theatre Center
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd.
Olney, MD 20832
1 hour, 40 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $23 – $46
Check for Discounts
All of this works towards the telling of a story that is both specific and universal, part Moises Kaufman, part Georges Bizet. Carmen: An Afro Cuban Jazz Musical addresses the specific issues of its setting- the political struggles of common people when they are stuck between something bad and something possibly worse, the implicit and explicit racism and colorism of an island nation where 35% of its population is of African decent. But this adaptation does not lose the themes that are essential to the story of Carmen, and, in particular, it emphasizes the dangers in the world for a woman confident in her sexuality and ability to be an agent for change.
While Carmen may not be as emotionally wrenching as some of Kaufman’s most well-known works (such as The Laramie Project), its combination of story, style, and expert direction of skillful performances makes it, in my opinion, a must-see.
Carmen: An Afro-Cuban Jazz Musical. Book by Moisés Kaufman and Eduardo Machado. Music Composed and Adapted by Arturo O’Farrill. Lyrics by Moisés Kaufman. Addition Lyrics by Jason Loewith and Christopher Youstra. Based on the Music of Georges Bizet. Directed by Moisés Kaufman. Featuring George Akram, Sumayya Ali, Michelles Alves, Brandon Andrus, Skizzo Arnedillo, Moses Bernal, Ronald Bruce, Tiffany Byrd, Briana Carlson-Goodman, Karla Choko, Nick Duckart, Nurney, Alejandra Matos, Calvin McCullough, José Ozuna, Christina Sajour, Caesar Samayoa, and Kara-Tameika Watkins. Set Design: Narelle Sissons. Lighting Design: David Lander. Sound Design: Robert Kaplowitz. Costume Design: Clint Ramos. Production Stage Manager: Josiane M. Lemieux. Music Director/ Additional Arrangments: Christopher Youstra. Choreography: Sergio Trujillo. Additional Choreography: Marcos Santana. Vocal Arragements: Andrea Grody. Orcehstrations: Alejandro Aviles. Dramaturg: David Lander. Produced by Olney Theatre Center/ Tetonic Theatre Project. Reviewed by Jessica Pearson.