The Artistic Director of the Classical Stage Company, John Doyle, is known for directing second looks at musicals in a stripped-down style that allows for a fresh look at a classic. His Sweeney Todd, Company, and The Color Purple have won numerous awards including Tonys for all 3. So, no surprise he’s tackling a revival of the 1943 musical Carmen Jones, which is itself Oscar Hammerstein II’s attempt at stripping down Bizet’s 1875 opera Carmen in order to make that format more appealing to a modern audience.
Hammerstein kept Bizet’s music intact but re-wrote the libretto to fit the updated setting. He changed the location of Carmen Jones from the opera’s tobacco factory in Seville Spain in 1875, to a parachute factory in a Southern African-American community during WWII. And the original production was very much a big Broadway musical with over a hundred cast members and a full orchestra.
The plot retains its original tragic shape. The young soldier, Joe (Clifton Duncan) with an all-but-engaged sweetheart at home, Cindy-Lou (Lindsay Roberts), gets seduced by the callous, femme fatale factory-worker, Carmen Jones (Anika Noni Rose). He winds up in jail because of her, then when he gets out he assaults his superior officer Sergeant Brown (Tramell Tillman) when he finds out Brown has been keeping company with Carmen. Thinking he’s killed Brown, Carmen is able to convince Joe to desert the army and go with her and her friends to Chicago. They’ve been invited by champion prizefighter Husky Miller (David Aron Damane) who has taken a liking to Carmen during a rest stop on the train north. Once in Chicago, Joe has to lie low and Carmen gets bored with him. Cindy-Lou comes looking for him because his mother is ill and he goes back home to see her. Free at last to do what she wants, Carmen takes up with Husky. Joe quickly returns, having found his mother already deceased when he gets there, and finds Carmen at one of Husky’s fights. Although he has threatened her, she is unafraid to talk to him and tells him she’s through and flings the ring he gave her back at him. He kills her in a jealous rage.
Doyle’s current production at CSC takes the Hammerstein original Broadway musical extravaganza with over 100 performers, a full orchestra, sets, props and costumes, and further strips it down to his trademark essentials. A cast of 10, 6 musicians, a bare stage played in the round, and some army crates as the only set pieces. The staging works well except in the opening scene where there is excessive, gratuitous moving of crates to give the performers something to do while singing about work.
I do think the piece itself is very problematical and doesn’t achieve Hammerstein’s original goal. Nor do I think this production gets it much closer. Locating the piece in this country and using our language is a good idea if you want Americans to understand what’s going on. However, Hammerstein, a white man, wrote the libretto for the all black cast in very marked AAVE (African-American Vernacular English). That’s often understood as referencing characters who are uneducated or illiterate which adds a subtle layer of racism to the proceedings. Not something the current climate calls for, and it was off-putting to me.
The other big issue is that a lot of people who don’t care much for opera, don’t care for it because they don’t like the music and the melodramatic, over-the-top performance style common to most of it. Doyle could have used this opportunity to take the beautiful and familiar melodies and arrange them in a more contemporary manner to make it more accessible to modern audiences. This was particularly noticeable in its absence during the “Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum” number. The lyrics are all about the drumming, the rhythm, and how it makes Frankie (Soara-Joye Ross) want to dance. How she can feel it in her bones. However, there wasn’t a percussion instrument being played, nor was there a thumping bass. Bill T. Jones' choreography was brilliant and made me feel like the performers were able to hear beats that I couldn’t hear. Which was frustrating.
For the most part the cast succeeded admirably in avoiding the operatic melodramatic stiffness and posturing often associated with opera. While singing gorgeously. Anika Noni Rose is a revelation both as a singer and an actress in the role of Carmen Jones. The voice which belted out songs in Dreamgirls, soars like a bird in Carmen Jones, while retaining a natural, believable quality. Her characterization of Carmen is masterful and mesmerizing.
I was disappointed with Clifton Duncan’s Joe, which puzzled me as he’s an excellent singer and actor and not a classically trained singer. But he alone out of the cast seemed to embody the caricature of an “opera singer.” He gesticulated and took stances that were melodramatic, and his voice took on an operatic cast. It wasn’t until the very end, when Joe is broken and on the verge of killing Carmen that I felt him drop the opera affect, and I saw a sad and real man. I don’t however, blame Mr. Duncan for this portrayal. It’s the director’s job to make sure that everyone in the cast is in the same production.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
What the popular press says...
"By the time the woman in the cafe starts to sing that the music has taken over her body — her bones, her stomach, her heart — you’re in no position to question the diagnosis. You’ve been feeling that same, gut-deep response almost since the first notes were sounded in Carmen Jones, which opened on Wednesday at Classic Stage Company. This may also be the moment at which you accept for good that John Doyle's transformative revival of this once-shunned, sui generis work from 1943 — a strange hybrid of opera (the score is that of Georges Bizet’s “Carmen”) and musical theater (the lyrics are by Oscar Hammerstein II) — isn’t going to be embarrassing. It is, on the contrary, sublime."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"As evidenced by the new Carmen Jones revival, which opened Wednesday at Off Broadway’s Classic Stage Company, Oscar Hammerstein II’s reworking of the Georges Bizet classic is definitely an opera, not a musical. What’s also very clear here is that Hammerstein’s tinkering is nothing short of brilliant, and that includes his lyrics, his snippets of dialogue and, above all, his totally convincing update of the story to an all-black military base in the South during World War II."
Robert Hofler for The Wrap
"Director John Doyle's trademark stripped-down approach was an evocative fit last season for Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's Pacific Overtures at Classic Stage Company. The same proves true for Carmen Jones, a sultry tale of passion and violence fleshed out of the bones of a hot-blooded opera. Seldom seen in New York since its Broadway debut in 1943, the show now plays as a beguiling curio. It's rendered especially captivating by the long overdue return to musical theater of Anika Noni Rose in a sizzling take on the title role, dressed to kill or be killed in femme fatale red."
David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter
External links to full reviews from popular press...