REVIEW: Oscar Hammerstein’s “Carmen Jones” at CSC

REVIEW: Oscar Hammerstein’s “Carmen Jones” at CSC

Classic Stage Company’s revival of “Carmen Jones” opened Thursday night for a limited run extended through August 19th; the music is magnificent and the voices gorgeous, but this first major production in 75 years exposes clashes of form endemic to a groundbreaking piece, and chafes under a small-scale vision from director John Doyle that disserves otherwise vibrant and promising material.

Largely forgotten by time, “Carmen Jones” is Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1943 folk opera treatment of Georges Bizet’s opera “Carmen” (1875), itself based on a novella by Prosper Mérimée (1846).  “Carmen” is the tragic tale of a gypsy seductress whose wiles and betrayals lead men to fight and kill.  In adapting the opera for Broadway, Hammerstein retained Bizet’s score—one of the most beloved and well-known of all—re-fashioning and trimming the opera down from four acts to two, providing his own lyrics in lieu of the popular English translation of Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy’s French libretto, and replacing recitativo sections with spoken dialogue. 

Most importantly, though, Hammerstein transplanted the setting from early-19th century Seville, Spain to the American South during World War II (or, as it was in 1943, “now”), featuring an all-African American cast.  This shift of time and place works remarkably well, to Hammerstein’s credit, but is plagued by some structural flaws resulting from a slimmer score and shortened plot development, and an unmoored and antiseptic production under Mr. Doyle’s hand. 

Anika Noni Rose (“Caroline, or Change”, “A Raisin in the Sun”) stars in the title role of Carmen Jones, the Seville tobacco factory where she works in the opera becoming a parachute factory in Charleston, South Carolina that’s been converted for the war effort.  Corporal Don José becomes Joe (Clifton Duncan, “Assassins”), a near-married U.S. Army airman whom Carmen seduces and brings to Chicago.  And the man for whom she leaves him, bullfighter Escamillo, becomes a prize-fighting boxer named Husky Miller (David Aron Damane). 

Also of note are Cindy Lou (Lindsay Roberts), Joe’s “girl next door” fiancé, and Frankie (Soara-Joye Ross), a singer at Billy Pastor’s jive café who loops Carmen into her big-break trip to Chicago for Husky’s prize fight—a visit that proves fatal for Carmen, as the cards predict.

Employing his signature technique, Mr. Doyle strips the stage of all but a few army green crates and some industrial lights and ceiling fans suspended from the warehouse ceiling of Classic Stage (sets by Scott Pask)—audience seated in the round (or square).  The stage is tighter than usual, as is the cast, totaling ten. 

The story and score of “Carmen”, in essence, remain the same in “Carmen Jones”—packed with sweeping gestures and grand operatic elements.  While it was innovative in 1943, switching classic settings to modern milieus is nothing new to contemporary opera audiences—this season’s excellent MetOpera production of Mozart’s “Così fan tutte” set on Coney Island offers a prime example (read my review)—and Hammerstein’s cuts leave less room for our lovers’ passions to develop, culminating in an ending that provides no emotional pay off.

Changing lyrics to English and adding some dialogue doesn’t make “Carmen Jones” a musical.  Instead it inhabits a space between, much like “The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess”, Diane Paulus’ 2011 adaptation of “Porgy and Bess”, which followed much the same blueprint as “Carmen Jones”, albeit without the task of translating lyrics.

Call it a folk opera or a musical, either way “Carmen Jones” calls for heavy atmospherics, but none are to be found in Mr. Doyle’s bare production, devoid of context and the beguiling mystique of its southern setting.  Were it not for the spot-on 1940s costumes by Ann Hould-Ward, an unwitting audience member could be forgiven for having no idea when this show takes place, or where for that matter.

Ms. Rose has a commanding and captivating presence—it is a gift to have her back on a New York stage in a musical—but she remains too wholesome to convincingly play the part of siren, despite her voice sounding divine.  The other principals sport voices equally as booming, but try as they might, a nine member ensemble still sounds like nine people, no matter how intimate the theatre.  I was, however, pleasantly surprised by the fullness of the six piece orchestra, the size of which I scoffed at upon first glance.  Notably absent in orchestrator Joseph Joubert’s personnel, though, is percussion—a strange choice given that the show’s most iconic number is called “Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum”.

That number, staged by Bill T. Jones (“Fela”, The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company), offers the only true dance sequence in the piece, and is underwhelming.  Elsewhere, Mr. Doyle’s staging consists of a lot of busy work and synchronized movement too self-consciously composed to ensure consistent 360 degree enjoyment. 

Perhaps because of the near-unparalleled cultural ubiquity of “Carmen”, there are also moments of unavoidable novelty as familiar melodies come to life through the accessibility of English-language lyrics and a setting more familiar than 19th century Spain.  Hammerstein went for the low-hanging opera fruit when picking this one, which is what made it ripe for a Broadway audiences in 1943—a proto-jukebox musical by way of Bizet—but today, another 75 years removed from the opera’s debut, that choice itself feels pat.

“Carmen Jones”, a passion project for Hammerstein, was his only solo project after teaming up with composer Richard Rodgers; though completed in 1942, it would premiere on Broadway in December 1943, nine months after “Oklahoma!”.  That original production was an appropriately big affair, playing at the Broadway Theatre—one of the largest houses—and boasting an opening night cast of 109 performers, including eight alternates for the lead roles.  The all black cast was composed almost entirely of amateurs.

The show enjoyed a respectable run of 503 performances and a celebrated film adaption in 1954 starring Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, and Pearl Bailey, then faded from history, receiving a York Theatre Company “Mufti” concert in 2001 with Ms. Rose as Cindy Lou. 

There is a reason that no other classic opera, to my knowledge, has been given a folk opera adaptation using Hammerstein’s recipe—keep the score, change the setting, refresh the libretto—and “Carmen Jones” explains why.  As an opera, it fits more in the opéra comique tradition, despite its tragic plot; as a musical, the elements are too heightened to secure emotional resonance.  And in this small-scale production, no resolution in form is provided.  

Hammerstein may be remembered best as a lyricist, but his most impactful contribution to the theatre was as a dramatist who pushed boundaries and experimented with form.  “Carmen Jones” is one of those experiments.  If the task was to make a classic story relevant to contemporary audiences, the 2001 film “Carmen: A Hip Hopera”, starring Beyoncé as Carmen, might be the more intriguing property to revive.  Or just check out the MetOpera’s “Carmen” later this season.

Bottom Line: Classic Stage Company presents the first major revival of Oscar Hammerstein’s “Carmen Jones” in an intimate, small-scale production by John Doyle; the music is magnificent and the voices gorgeous, but this 1943 opera-to-musical experiment doesn’t hold up.  Catch the MetOpera’s “Carmen” instead.

Carmen Jones
Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street
New York, NY  10003

Running Time: 95 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: June 27, 2018
Final Performance: July 29, 2018

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