“Beat out dat rhythm on a drum,” Oscar Hammerstein II commands, and the folks down at Classic Stage Company sure as hell do. With a lava-hot performance from Anika Noni Rose and staging by John Doyle of Sweeney Todd and The Color Purple, this vest-pocket production takes the 1943 Carmen Jones off the shelf and reveals it to be living, pulse-pounding, musically marvelous and altogether terrific.
It was Hammerstein’s conceit to take Georges Bizet’s grand-but-passionate opera and attempt to give it immediacy by transplanting it to the present time (which was early World War II) and turning that Seville cigarette factory into a parachute manufacturing plant. While the lyrics were wildly colloquialized, Hammerstein saw fit to leave Bizet’s passionate music as intact as possible. (It should be noted that while we think of Carmen as an olden-day opera, at the time Hammerstein went to work it was only about 65-years-old—equivalent to the relationship of today’s audience to The King and I or Guys and Dolls.)
While the ensemble of factory workers and military police is far removed from the original, and the renowned toreador is refashioned as the reigning heavyweight champion, the heart of the opera remains rooted in the four-sided triangle between that most passionate factory girl Carmen (Ms. Rose, ever-memorable for her riveting and Tony-winning performance as the fiery daughter in Caroline, or Change); the corporal Don José, now Joe (Clifton Duncan); the spurned country girl from back home, formerly Micaëla but now Cindy Lou (Lindsay Roberts); and the booming Escamillo, Americanized as Husky Miller (David Aron Damane).
If you think that the passions and the musicality might be dampened in this ten-actor, six-musician, 200-seat rendition, you’re only about 100 percent wrong. Those passions are alive and well; and the cast, especially the four principals plus Soara-Joye Ross as Frankie (Frasquita), almost roar their way through the intensely passionate score. The show starts with a very brief spell when you might think, what are we doing here, in 2018? (There is no question of what is to come; while Bizet’s glorious overture is understandably gone, the show starts with that legendary and instantly-identifiable fight song, “Toreador.”)
Doyle quickly situates us in the American south, the girls gossiping about the fiery Carmen who has set her eyes on the soldier Joe. Then on comes Rose—dressed in flaming red, with a bandana in her hair and a slash of lipstick colored to match her fingernails and the rose that will carry these ill-fated lovers to death in the street. Out of the pit comes the sinuous rhythm of Carmen’s “Habanera,” with a new lyric entitled “Dat’s Love” which foretells the whole damn thing: 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.
What you get in traditional grand opera is unquestionably grand, although from afar. Put Ms. Rose on the stage floor, no more than three rows away from most of the patrons—so close that you can tell that she seems to have purposely left one of the buttons on her dress slyly unbuttoned—and you’ve got grand opera in your lap, the voices almost directly in your ear. This happens again and again throughout the evening. Every time you start to think but what about that masterful orchestration with all those instruments? Rose or Duncan or Damane send literal shivers through your sinews. No, we don’t need the absent harp, brass and drums; we’re getting the soul of the score, shimmering unfiltered through our veins. And that’s theater; or, in Hammersteinian vernacular, “dat’s theater.”
The orchestration, by Joseph Joubert of Caroline, or Change and The Color Purple, is masterful indeed: three strings, one reed, a lone French horn standing in for the entire brass section plus a hard-working piano played by musical director Sheldon Becton. The only time I even began to think about what was missing was during “My Joe” (“Micaëla’s Air”), without that lush string-and-woodwind undercurrent. But again, Roberts’ Cindy Lou singing for life within mere yards of you—which would not be practical in a thousand-seater that a full orchestra would economically require—gives the music full power.
Those of us accustomed to director Doyle’s style of accentuating musicals by stripping them down to essentials are aware of how monumental the results can be when he is at his best. He is here at his best. One can only imagine that this Carmen Jones will have a long life riveting audiences in considerably larger venues, as was the case with his phenomenal better-than-before Color Purple.
Bill T. Jones (Spring Awakening) provides the minimal but powerful choreography, while Scott Pask provides what seems to be not much of a set (although everything is perfectly contrived), Ann Hould-Ward, too, has little with which to show off; something like 11 costumes for 10 actors. But the clothes work magnificently well, especially for Carmen and the women. The efforts of lighting designer Adam Honoré seem non-existent while they are indispensable to the affair. Minimalism is the call of the day; but in the hands of Doyle and his cohorts, minimal showiness provides maximal effect.
Which leaves us to praise the cast. Duncan matches Rose with his rafter-raising voice, making a most-sympathetic hero out of Joe; while Danane’s basso is the vocal equivalent of what Hammerstein several years later called “a champ of the heavyweights.” Roberts catches the inner passion of Cindy Lou; while Ross magnetizes the crowd with the Gypsy song which opens what had been Bizet’s second act, here refashioned as “Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum.” And how!
To those who might have thought—and not unreasonably—that Hammerstein’s Americanized Carmen was by now seriously past-dated, the message is clear: in the hands of Doyle, Anika Noni Rose and the rest, this is pure theatrical dynamite.
Carmen Jones opened June 27, 2018 at CSC and runs through August 19. Tickets and information: classicstage.org