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Theatre in Review: Carmen Jones (Classic Stage Company)

Anika Noni Rose. Photo: Joan Marcus

There are, I think, two ways of looking at this thoroughly unexpected revival of Carmen Jones. On the one hand, it is likely to go down as one of the season's most fascinating curios, a revival of a show that for many years seemed lost to the past. In the early 1940s, Oscar Hammerstein II conceived the idea of adapting Georges Bizet's Carmen for an all-black cast, moving the action to the American South and making Carmen not a cigarette girl but a war worker in a parachute factory. The director, John Doyle, employing the approach that he calls "essentialism," has trimmed the original, reduced the enormous cast (one hundred in the original Broadway production) to ten, shrunk the orchestra to six players, eliminated a couple of ballets, and carved out of the material a fast-moving chamber opera that clocks in at ninety minutes. What you're getting is a step removed from Hammerstein's concept, and two or three steps away from Bizet.

Then again, who thought we would ever see any production of Carmen Jones, let alone one informed by such an idiosyncratic approach? This staging may be short on amenities, but it doesn't stint on vocal sizzle; when the gifted cast members tear into some of the most popular arias in the entire opera repertory, the walls at CSC all but tremble. This is not the last word on Carmen, or even Carmen Jones, but it is a lively alternate version that coasts confidently on a cloud of seductive melody.

What with changing times, Carmen Jones has had a checkered career. Hammerstein deep in his pre-Oklahoma! flop period, came up with the idea of creating a vernacular version of Bizet, and the original production was a solid hit, running over five hundred performances. (It opened six months after Oklahoma!, which cemented his partnership with Richard Rodgers.) Otto Preminger made a film version in 1954, which earned Dorothy Dandridge an Oscar nomination. But, following the rise of the Civil Rights movement, black artists and commentators began to regard the property with a colder eye. James Baldwin, in particular, had no use for it. Still, it never really went away; there were London revivals in 1991 and 2007, and in 2001 York Theatre Company's Musicals in Mufti series took a pass at it.

For whatever reason -- the passage of time, a theatre scene featuring a broader range of black writers and directors -- Carmen Jones no longer seems to be a magnet for controversy. Doyle's production has its drawbacks; thanks to cuts in the book, combined with Scott Pask's abstract set design -- defined mostly by piles of olive-drab boxes and a couple of parachutes hung from the ceiling -- it is often difficult to tell where we are from scene to scene; indeed, it's hard to discern that the action has shifted from one location to another. There's a choppy continuity to the action that may partly be Hammerstein's adaptation, but which also, I'm pretty sure, has to do with Doyle's desire to cut the book to the bone, eliminating the waits between numbers. At times, it feels like one is seeing Highlights from Carmen Jones, rather than the thing itself.

Then again, when Anika Noni Rose slinks through Hammerstein's version of the "Habanera," titled "Dat's Love," you'll feel the heat. Her Carmen, like Franz Wedekind's Lulu, is an amoral creature who lives entirely for pleasure; she is determined to possess Joe, the good-hearted soldier who is the musical's Don Jose figure, but is easily distracted by any other man who comes into her line of vision. She has a first-rate, big-voiced partner in the Joe of Clifton Duncan, who makes scarily believable Joe's slide into obsession, chasing after Carmen when she tires of him, destroying his reputation, and ending up a criminal. Completing the triangle at the heart of the story is Lindsay Roberts as Cindy Lou, the good girl from Joe's hometown who stands by while Carmen takes him to perdition. Cindy Lou's fate is probably sealed the minute that Joe sings to her "You Talk Jus' Like My Maw," a sentiment that, however heartfelt, is probably fatal to romance; still, seeing the destructive path forged by Carmen and Joe, who are locked in a tango that will become a dance of death, one desperately wants Cindy Lou to save Joe from himself. (She does especially well with the plaintive aria "My Joe.")

Also displaying his vocal prowess is David Aron Damane as Husky Miller, the Escamillo figure, here turned into a boxer; his rendition of "Stand Up and Fight," a rewrite of "Toreador," is one of the evening's highlights. Erica Dorfler, as Myrt, another factory worker, leads "Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum," which is excitingly staged by the choreographer Bill T. Jones. Tramell Tillman is a powerful presence as the sergeant who vies with Joe for Carmen's attentions. (One dearly hopes that the burden of covering principal roles and chorus numbers doesn't strain these gorgeous voices; they have taken on an onerous assignment that will become more challenging if the show extends, as one imagines it may.)

Aside from Pask's rather anonymous set, the design has other ups and downs. Ann Hould-Ward's costumes dress the ladies in period cotton dresses, with Carmen in body-hugging, decolletage-revealing frocks; when the action moves to Chicago, she is the only female character to get new clothes. The men wear camouflage or olive-drab pants and white T-shirts, adding dress jackets, for example, when playing civilians. This approach sometimes contributes to the occasional confusion about time and place. With operatic voices bouncing around CSC's auditorium, the sound designer, Dan Moses Schreier, is more challenged than usual; sometimes there is a bit of reverberance in both the dialogue scenes and musical numbers. The production does showcase the work of a new lighting designer, Adam Honore, who effectively mixes color washes with stark white-light looks to track the story's shifting moods.

Doyle has handled the cast with enormous sensitivity, guiding them to performances that haven't even a touch of caricature in them. Carmen Jones will be catnip to musical-theatre fans, who will leap at the rare opportunity to see a show that carries Hammerstein's pedigree. Others can enjoy the torrential singing and incisive acting. Carmen Jones may be a strange creature, but her charms are very real and won't be denied. -- David Barbour

(27 June 2018)

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