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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.
This was a project that lyricist and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II quietly tinkered with for years before his breakthrough collaboration with composer Richard Rodgers, Oklahoma! It could easily have been just a gimmick designed to make traditional opera more palatable to mainstream theater audiences. But the ripely atmospheric transplant of Bizet’s Carmen from early-19th-century southern Spain to World War II-era America, with an all-black cast, was a commercial and critical hit, running for 503 performances plus return engagements.
It spawned an uneven 1954 Otto Preminger screen version that nonetheless was a terrific vehicle for the incandescent Dorothy Dandridge, and its narrative frame, though not its score, became the loose basis for Beyonce’s first acting role, in the 2001 MTV movie musical Carmen: A Hip Hopera.
Hammerstein swapped out the original’s Seville tobacco factory for a parachute factory in the black American South. Spanish soldier Don Jose, who falls for man-eating troublemaker Carmen, becomes army corporal Joe, angling to get into flight school and engaged to sweet hometown girl Cindy Lou (the opera’s Micaela). The bullfighter Escamillo, Don Jose’s rival for Carmen’s affections, becomes heavyweight prizefighter Husky Miller, who lures Carmen from South Carolina to Chicago but doesn’t count on Joe being dragged along.
Working with minimalist sets by Scott Pask and sweaty lighting by Adam Honore, Doyle conjures locations including a factory floor, an interstate train, a barroom and a swanky country club using nothing but slow-turning ceiling fans, walls of cartons, military crates and parachute cloth.
The band is positioned on an elevated wooden deck above the stage, with just six musicians pulling a surprisingly robust sound out of Joseph Joubert’s jazz-inflected orchestrations. But the music is unmistakably Bizet’s, from the opera’s signature “Habanera,” sung by Carmen in African-American vernacular as the teasing “Dat’s Love,” to “March of the Toreadors,” reworked as Husky’s similarly triumphal “Stan’ Up and Fight.”
One of the show’s best-known numbers is “Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum,” fashioned out of the opera’s “Gypsy Song.” The rousing invitation to dance is led here with infectious spirit by Soara-Joye Ross, with the choreography of an otherwise underutilized Bill T. Jones building a bridge between exuberant 1940s swing moves and shuffling traditional African dance.
As with Porgy and Bess, a superior American work that predates Carmen Jones by almost a decade and also straddles the divide between opera and musical theater, there’s potential discomfort for culturally enlightened contemporary audiences in hearing colloquial black speech as written by a white writer. And Hammerstein’s lyrics here in general are earthier, less poetic than those of DuBose Howard and Ira Gershwin for Porgy and Bess. But Doyle has made the right choice in treating it as a history piece. He has also cast gifted singers, and even if in one or two cases their acting is not at the level of their vocals, the songs are put across with stirring feeling.
Lindsay Roberts is charming, the essence of sincere devotion as Cindy Lou, but not so innocent that she can’t shrug off the libidinous come-ons of a bunch of horny soldiers: “I’m a chick dat likes one rooster/Never mess aroun’ wid two/Dat is why I mus’ refuse ter/Be more den jus’ perlite to you!” Her duet with Joe (Clifton Duncan), “You Talk Just Like My Maw,” traces with aching sweetness a love that blossomed in childhood and seems predestined for a marriage just like those of their respective parents. But despite mutually acknowledging that they belong to each another, Carmen has already staked her claim on Joe.
Ogled by all the men in the factory and resented by the women — “Git a load of that hip-swingin’ fluzy, rollin’ aroun’ to work in time for lunch!” sneers one of them — Carmen likes a challenge. In “Dat’s Love,” she sings: “You go for me an’ I’m taboo/But if you’re hard to get I go for you/An’ if I do then you are through, boy/My baby dat’s de end of you.” More fatalistic words were never spoken (or sung) where Joe’s concerned.
Rose, who won a Tony in 2004 for Caroline, or Change and then the following year played the lead in a short Encores! run of Purlie, hasn’t done a musical in New York for more than a dozen years. You’d never guess she’d been away for a minute from the cool charisma, the sinuous physical command and the glorious vocals she brings to this juicy role.
Looking sensational in Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes, Rose’s Carmen wraps herself around the men and takes contemptuous swipes at the women, never relinquishing her control even when Joe is ordered to lead her off to the guardhouse for picking fights. When she manipulates him into letting her go, it’s Joe instead that lands in hot water, with the restless, fickle Carmen trapping him into bad decisions that will force him to flee the military police.
Doyle has trimmed the two-act show into an intermissionless 100 minutes, and while that allows little breathing space for the central relationship to develop, the broad-strokes, melodramatic storytelling remains effective, even if the inexorable turn toward tragedy is somewhat low-impact. Like Harry Belafonte in the movie, Duncan’s Joe is a little too pliant and naive, a mother-fixated dupe who offers zero resistance to Carmen and barely a hint of regret over his treatment of Cindy Lou, who pours out her heartache in the lovely “My Joe.” But the male lead acquires dimension whenever he opens his mouth to sing with transporting emotion.
For the principals in particular, this is a hard sing — the original Broadway production included alternates for all the main roles — which makes the cast’s accomplishments here all the more impressive despite some occasional strain. The revival is presented in the round, and the power of the vocals in such an intimate space, seating just 200, is thrilling. That goes also for David Aron Damane as the swaggering strongman Husky, with his booming bass notes, and for Tramell Tillman as the arrogant Sergeant Brown, his meanness stoked by Carmen’s preference for Joe over him. The entire 10-member ensemble registers with distinctive characters, but the show belongs to Rose, the smoldering core around whom everyone else revolves.
The production doesn’t quite make a case for Carmen Jones as a neglected classic, but the 75-year-old cross-genre mashup does emerge as a fabulous artifact that still thrums with irresistible vitality.
Venue: Classic Stage Company, New York
Cast: Anika Noni Rose, Clifton Duncan, David Aron Damane, Erica Dorfler, Andrea Jones-Sojola, Justin Keyes, Lindsay Roberts, Soara-Joye Ross, Lawrence E. Street, Tramell Tillman
Director: John Doyle
Book and lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II, based on Meilhac and Halevy’s adaptation of Prosper Merimee’s Carmen
Music: Georges Bizet
Set designer: Scott Pask
Costume designer: Ann Hould-Ward
Lighting designer: Adam Honore
Sound designer: Dan Moses Schreier
Music supervisor and orchestrations: Joseph Joubert
Music director: Shelton Becton
Choreographer: Bill T. Jones
Presented by Classic Stage Company, in association with Alan D. and Barbara Marks, Eric Falkenstein, Covent Garden Productions
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