When Carmen Jones opened on Broadway in 1943, one critic hailed it as “something more than a major theatrical event.” Seventy-five years later, the Classic Stage Company is presenting what it bills as the show’s first major New York revival since its Broadway debut. If it may no longer be “more than” a theatrical event, it’s still pretty damn exciting, thanks to a cast led by Anika Noni Rose and the show’s fascinating history.
Between Oklahoma! and Carousel, Oscar Hammerstein II took a break from Richard Rodgers to collaborate with Georges Bizet, the long-dead composer of Carmen, the 19th century French opera that features two of the most familiar tunes in all of Western music – Habanera and the Toreador Song. Hammerstein kept intact both the opera’s music and its spicy story of a tragic love triangle in which a fiery seductress brings down a naïve soldier. But he changed the locale from Spain to the American South during World War II, and turned the Spaniards and Romani into African-Americans: Carmen the gypsy became Carmen Jones, a worker in a parachute factory, Don José became (GI) Joe, and the matador Escamillo, for whom Carmen abandons Joe, became the prizefighter Husky Miller. Hammerstein created lyrics and scenes of dialogue in vernacular English. “Habanera” became “Dat’s Love”; Escamillo’s “the Toreador Song” became Husky Miller’s “Stan’ Up An’ Fight.”
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The show was a hit, running for more than 500 performances, and eliciting raves for everything from Hammerstein’s libretto (“brilliantly translated”) to its 100+ member cast (“perfect”) to its kaleidoscopic costumes and even its lighting (“a major miracle.”) It led to a memorable 1954 movie directed by Otto Preminger, with a swoon-worthy cast featuring Dorothy Dandridge (voiced by Marilyn Horne), Harry Belafonte, Pearl Bailey and a teenage Diahann Carroll.
John Doyle, CSC’s artistic director, directs the stage revival taking much the same approach he did with his Tony winning productions of Sweeney Todd and The Color Purple. As in those shows, everything is pared down (Doyle likes to call this “essentialist.”) The show itself is streamlined to 90 minutes without an intermission. Instead of a cast of more than 100, there are ten performers. Scott Pask’s set is minimal, largely just green boxes that evoke the wartime setting; Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes are mostly muted or military issue, save for Carmen’s bright red dress. A six-piece orchestra plays on an orchestra pit that’s on a balcony overlooking the CSC’s small stage, which is three-quarters in the round.
A more resplendent staging might have made a better match for such a purplish plot. Still, the vocal talent of the cast makes much of the show feel plush. The ensemble singing fills the intimate theater, and the individual performers seem to be in a competition to floor us with their arias — David Aron Damane as Husky Miller singing “Stan Up an’ Fight”; Clinton Duncan as Joe singing “Dis Flower”; Lindsay Roberts as Cindy Lou (who was Joe’s sweetheart before Carmen stole him away) crooning “My Joe,” Soara-Joye Ross as Frankie belting out “Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum” in the nightclub scene.
But it is Anika Noni Rose who conquers, from the moment she enters wearing that red dress and carrying a red rose, and inspects her silk stockings. It is a subtle gesture that shows us a woman out for herself. Sultry, seductive and destructive, her Carmen Jones is an operatic character of outsized appetites, and Rose’s voice one of operatic force and beauty. But her performance, rooted in her training as a Tony-winning actress in both plays and musicals, offers no hint of the stilted formality we might associate with opera stars.
One can say much the same thing about Carmen Jones as a whole. Because it’s a classical opera, it gets a pass for a view of mankind (and especially of womankind) that audiences couldn’t accept from a new work. Because it’s musical theater, there is none of the fussiness or fustiness that can attach itself to opera. Straddling opera and musical theater, it arguably gives us the best of both worlds.
Carmen Jones is on stage at Classic Stage Company (136 East 13th Street, between Third and Fourth Aves., New York, N.Y. 10003) through July 29, 2018.
Carmen Jones . Music by Georges Bizet, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Directed by John Doyle. Choreographed by Bill T. Jones. Music director Shelton Becton. Scenic design by Scott Pask
costume design by Ann Hould-Ward, lighting design by Adam Honoré, sound design by Dan Moses Schreier, featuring Anika Noni Rose (Carmen Jones), David Aron Damane (Husky Miller), Erica Dorfler (Myrt), Clifton Duncan (Joe), Andrea Jones-Sojola (Sally), Justin Keyes (Rum), Lindsay Roberts (Cindy Lou), Soara-Joye Ross (Frankie), Lawrence E. Street (Dink) and Tramell Tillman (Sergeant Brown). Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.