By Donna Herman
The Artistic Director of the Classic 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 Tony’s 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.
Carmen Jones by Oscar Hammerstein II; Based on Meilhac and Halevy’s adaptation of Prosper Merimee’s “Carmen;” Music by Georges Bizet, Choreographed by Bill T. Jones, Directed by John Doyle
WITH: David Aron Damane (Husky Miller); Erica Dorfler (Myrt); Clifton Duncan (Joe); Andrea Jones-Sojola (Sally); Justin Keyes (Rum); Lindsay Roberts (Cindy Lou); Anika Noni Rose (Carmen Jones); Soara-Joye Ross (Frankie); Lawrence E. Street (Dink); Tramell Tillman (Sergeant Brown (Tramell Tillman)
ORCHESTRA: Shelton Becton (Piano); Tomoko Akaboshi (Violin); Aaron Stokes (Cello); Levi ones (Bass); Kyra Sims (French Horn); Chris Reza (Woodwinds).
Set Design by Scott Pask; Costume Design by Ann Hould-Ward; Lighting Design by Adam Honore; Sound Design by Dan Moses Shreier; Hair and Wig Design by Mia Neal; Music Supervisor/Orchestrator, Joseph Joubert; Music Director, Shelton Becton; Production Stage Manager, Bernita Robinson; Asst. Stage Manager, Angela Perez; Casting by Telsey + Company, Rebecca Scholl, CSA; Press Rep, The Publicity Office. Presented by Classic Stage Company, John Doyle, Artistic Director. 136 East 13th Street, NYC 10003. Performances through July 29th. For tickets, visit classicstage.org, call (212) 352-3101 or (866) 811-4111, or in person at the box office (136 East 13th Street).