by Carol Rocamora
If only Oscar Hammerstein were alive today to see the Classic Stage Company’s thrilling revival of his Carmen Jones! Like the rest of us, he’d marvel at the artistry and red-hot passion packed into that tiny theatre.
Hammerstein’s compact English-language adaptation of Bizet’s opera premiered on Broadway in 1943, and was made into a film in 1954 (directed by Otto Preminger, starring Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte.) And now John Doyle has remounted it as the jewel in the crown of CSC’s 50th anniversary season.
Doyle’s choice is inspired. First, Carmen Jones hasn’t been seen on a New York stage in 75 years. Second, it’s a perfect match for John Doyle’s prodigious talent as a visionary director of musicals (witness his groundbreaking work on Sondheim). Third, it allows Doyle’s skill as a director of ensembles to shine – this time, with a superb troupe of ten African-American actors.
Designer Scott Pask has made marvelous use of the small CSC space, serving Doyle’s signature minimalist style. He’s reconfigured the seating into a rectangle, with audience on all four sides of a bare stage floor. A balcony hangs over one block of seats, housing an orchestra of seven.
In that intimate space, before a spellbound audience, the story (by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, adapted from Prosper Mérimée’s novella) is played out in an intense ninety-five minutes. Hammerstein transplants the setting from 19th century Seville to a town in the American south during World War II, site of a parachute plant (cigarette factory, in the original) and a base for soldiers about to be shipped off to war.
The condensed score is faithful to Bizet, while the updated plot features the original dramatis personae, with some renaming. Carmen is a fiery factory worker and local seductress who charms Joe, an aspiring airman (Don José, a corporal, in the original). Joe is conflicted – he’s engaged to a lovely local girl named Cindy Lou (Micaëla, in the original), but he’s defenseless against Carmen’s charms. He frees Carmen, who has been jailed because of a fight, and in turn, his superior throws Joe in jail. Meanwhile Carmen, predictably, has found another man – this time, a boxer (Escamillo, a toreador, in the original), and she follows him to Chicago, dragging Joe along with her. There the tragedy comes to its famous, foregone conclusion.
The ensemble is marvelous. Anika Noni Rose is a charismatic Carmen. Although of small stature, she commands the stage, unleashing her seductive powers. Her voice is rich and honey-smooth, and she delivers the famous arias with supreme skill and confidence. From the moment she sings the famous “habanera” about the untameable nature of love, she has the audience under her spell – and Joe as well, to whom she tosses a red rose like a challenge. Her “tra-la-la” taunts are mesmerizing, and her“seguidilla,” about making love to whomever she wants, is triumphant in its defiance. Clifton Duncan cuts a deeply moving figure as Joe, whom he endows with aching vulnerability as well as decency. As Cindy Lou, Lindsay Roberts is radiant, and her voice is angelic. As the boxer, David Aron Damane delivers the famous toreador song with authority and panache. The rest of the acting/singing ensemble shines – including Erica Dorfler, Soara-Joye Ross, Tramell Tillman, Andrea Jones-Sojola, Lawrence Street, and Justin Keyes. Costumed in brilliant color by Anne Hould-Ward, they’re all standouts – especially Carmen, in that devastating red dress. (The dynamic choreography is by Bill T. Jones).
This is one of those productions where all the artistic planets are aligned, and the results are glorious. It’s vividly imagined, clearly rendered, fluidly directed, and beautifully paced. A master at maneuvering an ensemble, Doyle has the entire cast present throughout the performance, with various actors standing to the side observing, when they’re not in a given scene. Their collective presence adds to the heat and urgency of the piece. In such an intimate space, with the performers only a few feet from you, the results are electrifying.
At the preview I attended, the audience applauded after every aria (sometimes they had to be stopped by the orchestras), and the standing ovation at the conclusion was instantaneous and unanimous. What a fitting celebration to culminate CSC’s 50th anniversary!
Photos: Joan Marcus
Carmen Jones, book & lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, based on Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy’s adaptation of Prosper Mérimée’s novella, at the Classic Stage Company extended thru Aug. 19. www.csc.org