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A CurtainUp Review
Carmen Jones

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

— Carmen, in "Dat's Love" which foreshadows the unhappy end likely for her as well as any man she loves.
carmen jones
Anika Noni Rose, and Clifton Duncan (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Though French composer Georges Bizet's opera adapted from Prosper Merimée's novella,wasn't well received when it premiered in 1875, it did became one of the opera world's enduring hits. After all, who could resist ear-pleasing arias like the rousing "Toreador Song" and "Habanera"?

Oscar Hammerstein II, also found Bizet's music irresistible — and accessible enough to adapt the steamy libretto of love, jealousy and murder for the musical theater. So, he Americanized the cast and book. He moved the seductive Spanish gypsy and everyone in the opera's Seville village to a Dixieland parachute factory during World War II. Carmen's village lover Don Jose became U.S. Army Sergeant Joe and Escamillo the bull fighter morphed into prize fighter Husky Miller.

Despite Hammerstein's reputation, a show with an all-black cast and a score that despite being more accessible than most operas could not hide its operatic roots, was risky in 1943. But the risk paid off. Carmen Jones, enjoyed a for then very successful run of 500 performances. It was also made into movie starring Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge, but the singing was dubbed since the cast featured actors rather than singers.

Carmen, the opera, is still regularly produced and casting plays and musicals with African-American actors is today welcome rather than risky. In fact, musicals with all African-American casts have enjoyed great success. Yet, there have been no major New York revivals of that long ago, big Broadway production of Carmen Jones. More than likely because Hammerstein's lyrics with their dated "Negro dialect" nowadays have a somewhat musty, cartoonish, politically incorrect flavor.

And so, hurrah and thank you John Doyle for giving New Yorkers a chance to experience this show on stage and seeing it performed by a marvelous cast of strong voiced performers. Doyle, who successfully directed the all African-American The Color Purple on Broadway three years ago has once again applied his essential staging style to this rare revival at the Classic Stage (CSC) where he now serves as artistic director.And it works!

So, ignore any opera purists' complaints about the singers being miked. Also ignore any complaints from musical theater afficionados about this revisical's having no scenery and losing a big chunk of the original show's content. Sure, a Carmen in a Metropolitan Opera production would sing without amplification, but she'd also not be required to perform seven times a week and for a month long run. The intimate Classic Stage should enable singers to sing unplugged. However, even in a small house like this, without the miking (which is far more minimal than what you hear in most Broadway venues)the performance schedule and the demanding score would surely force at least the key players to soon be on vocal rest.

Though I didn't think Doyle's minimalist staging with its focus on what's best and essential about a show suited his production of Summer and Smoke all that well, it's just right for Carmen Jones. Like all operas the story is a fairly over the top melodrama, headed for a predictable ending.

To sum the plot up in a double tweet: Carmen is more into fun than her job in the Dixie parachute factory, where Sergeant Joe is on guard duty, ripe for her to lure him away from duty and his girlfriend Cindy Lou. She does, but tires of him and takes up with prize fighter Husky Miller. The jealous Joe follows and, like many operas, our anti-heroine ends up with a knife in her chest.

Clearly the essential appeal of any Carmen Jones production — and consequently Doyle's aptly essential staging — is the music. And at a trim 95 minutes, this Carmen Jones keeps that music coming and the story moving along without longueurs.

Despite the amplification making the sound of the voices a tad less than 100% pure, all ten cast members are wonderful singers and actors and provide CSC audiences with a most enjoyable watching and listening experience.

Anika Noni Rose is a vibrant Carmen with many memorable solo songs and contributions to group numbers like the "Card Song" after she follows Husky Miller to Chicago. While her red dress is the right color for her dress, whatever point costumer Ann Hould-Ward might have had in mind the red dress she put her in for the later part of the play ups Carmen's bad girl image by not just baring her shoulders, which is fine, but making the rear unflatteringly tight.

Lindsay Roberts is a star in her own right as Cindy Lou the girl from whom she steals Sergeant Joe (Clifton Duncan). And the men too are splendid in both the acting and voice department, but if I had to pick a standout, Baritone David Aron Damane as the boxer Husky Miller who in turn steals Carmen from Joe. His rousing rendition of the famous Toreador Song alone is worth a trip to 13th Street. With the audience seated all around the stage, the matador's transformation into a prize fighter makes the all around seating especially effective since it gives the viewers a feeling of having ringside seat at a deadly fight.

As David Aron Damane doesn't have a lot of stage time but turns every moment he's on into a highlight, so Bill Jones's choreography is limited. But his one big ensemble number is a knockout.

The orchestra features just six musicians but they're well positioned in a small balcony above the stage. Except for the "Card Song" sequence, the only scenic props are the parachute boxes lining the walls in back of two of the seating areas to suggest the parachute factory setting. Some of those boxes are smartly used as on stage props.

To sum up, even if you would prefer the show without amplification and with more scenery, you'll find them quibbles than major enjoyment spoilers. My own big quibble is not with Mr. Doyle's production but the elimination of printed programs (once especially interesting at this company). As my colleague Simon Saltzman who was there at the matinee I attended put it, "Good grief, next they'll give up seats and we'll have to bring folding chairs."

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Carmen Jones
Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Music by Geoge Bizet
Directed by John Doyle
Choregraphed by Bill T. Jones. Cast: Anika Noni Rose (Carmen), David Aron Damane (Husky Miller), Erica Dorfler (Myrt), Clifton Duncan (Joe), Andrea Jones-Sojola (Sally), Justin Keyes (Rum), Lindsay Roberts (Cindy Lou), Soara-Joye Ross (Frankie), Lawrence E. Street (Dink) and Tramell Tillman (Sergeant Brown).
Sets by Scott Pask
Costumes by Ann Hould-Ward
Lighting by Adam Honore
Sound design by Dan Moses Schreier
Orchestrator and music coordinater: Joseph Joubert
Orchestra: Piano-Shelton Becton; Violin-Tomoko Akaboshi;Cello-Aaron Stokes;Bass-Levi Jones; French Horn-Kyra Sims; Woodwinds-Chris Reza
Production Stage Manager: Bernita Robinson
Running Time: 95 minutes, without an intermission
Classic Stage CSC 136 East 13th Street
From 6/08/18; opening 6/27/18; closing 7/29/18.
Tuesday through Thursday evenings at 7 pm; Fridays at 8 pm; Saturdays at 3 and 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 6/23 press matinee

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