Review: ‘Carmen Jones’ Pulls Its Punches at CSC
By Christopher Caggiano, Contributing Writer, June 28, 2018
We don’t get many chances to see Carmen Jones, Oscar Hammerstein’s 1944 modernized version of George Bizet’s 1875 opera, Carmen. The original production of Carmen Jones ran for 15 months, considerable for its time, but hasn’t been seen since then in a professional production in New York City. Until now, with Carmen Jones at CSC.
Carmen Jones occupies a special place in the hearts of us Hammerstein aficionados. He wrote the show at a time when he basically couldn’t get arrested. Sure, the guy had written Show Boat, but he had had very little success in the 16 years since. He was reduced to tinkering with Carmen, modernizing the language and moving the action to the contemporary American South, in his copious spare time.
What’s more, Hammerstein was working on the adaptation on spec, meaning that no one was yet attached as a producer, and he wasn’t yet getting paid for his efforts. This occurs all the time today, but at that time, it was a significant comedown for this founding father of the American musical. Of course, when Oklahoma! became an enormous hit, suddenly producers were interested in whatever else Hammerstein might have had hanging around.
Carmen Jones is currently enjoying a moderately successful revival at the Classic Stage Company, under the direction of CSC Artistic Director John Doyle, and featuring choreography by Bill T. Jones. As a director, Doyle specializes in taking a previously existing piece and removing all the trappings to get down to what’s elemental. This “essentialism” was most famously on display in his 2005 revival of Sweeney Todd, for which he earned a Tony Award for Best Director.
Doyle also applied his pared-down approach to Stephen Sondheim’s Company, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro, and to the 2015 Tony-winning revival of The Color Purple. He is also associated, sometimes dismissively, with productions in which the actors play musical instruments. Deriders of this approach will be cheered to hear that there is a dedicated orchestra (or an eight-piece band, at any rate) for Carmen Jones, and that no one on stage is carrying a musical instrument.
True to form, Doyle has essentialized Carmen, using only ten performers, and streamlining it down to 95 intermission-less minutes. Scott Pask’s efficient set design, with arena seating surrounding a central playing area, utilizes the raw feel of the CSC space to create the wartime factory atmosphere, with overhead fans and lights that descend for periodic adornment (red scarves for a nightclub, a silk parachute for a country club) to suggest a change of space.
Hammerstein’s Carmen Jones follows the essential story of Carmen fairly closely: serviceman Joe falls for factory worker Carmen, despite the frequent presence of Joe’s childhood sweetheart, Cindy Lou. Carmen toys with Joe, then discards him for prizefighter Husky Miller. Joe becomes enraged with jealousy, and, well, the plot proceeds from there.
Hammerstein’s translation features some rather quaint diction (“I’m a chick dat likes one rooster…Dat is why I mus’ refuse ter…”), and dialect that, if the piece were written today, might be considered condescending, although the language seems to have been normalized a bit for this production.
Bizet’s music is instantly recognizable, having for many years infiltrated itself into popular culture, utilized in movie soundtracks as varied as Trainspotting and The Bad News Bears. Indeed, the audience seemed to sigh with recognition — rather distractingly, truth be told — upon hearing the beginning strains of the most recognizable songs, including ”Dat’s Love” (based on “Habanera”) and “Stan’ Up and Fight” (based on “The Toreador Song”).
Doyle usually knows how to stage a show fluidly, without the show looking like someone actively staged it. Here, his hand is clearly visible, and the result is at times amateurish, especially during one number that had the cast jumping up and down from sitting on boxes like pistons in a V6 engine. There was only one number during which I could discern the hand of choreographer Bill T Jones, and the result was phlegmatic and affected, with pointlessly minute movements, such as fingers walking across forearms. The overall lack of a steady hand at the helm robbed the piece of a lot of its punch.
Tony winner Anika Noni Rose as Carmen is a delight, with a natural stage presence, a rich and wide-ranging voice, and a devilish playfulness. Clifton Duncan as Joe was more problematic. His reactions and gestures felt too outsize for the small space, and his performance felt artificial, particularly compared to those of his more reserved cast mates. Duncan was very affecting during the climactic confrontation between Joe and Carmen, but since he pretty much started at this heightened level, it made for a rather uniform performance.
Notable ensemble members include Tramell Tillman, focused and intense as Sergeant Brown, although he appeared unengaged when playing other roles. Soara-Joye Ross gave a rousing rendition of “Beat Out That Rhythm on a Drum,” although she had little else to do in the show, and the number itself is of questionable relevance to the story. David Aron Demane was suitably menacing as Husky Miller, with a booming, resonant bass.
[Warning: Multiple plot spoilers below, for this and other shows.]
On a final note, a rather strange confluence of subject matter occurred for me around the time I saw Carmen Jones. The night before, I had seen Othello in Central Park, and the week before The Iceman Cometh on Broadway. As you might have noticed, these stories all feature men who murder women through some combination of jealousy and delusion.
Again, this is was all a coincidence, but I was struck by what appears to be a horrifying trope in stories that we consider canonical. Granted, none of these works is praising what these men do, and a viewer would need to be incurably misogynistic to applaud their actions. And yet I found the additive effect rather chilling, especially given out modern sensitivities toward sexual assault and predation.
For a recent production of Bizet’s original Carmen in Florence, Italy the creative staff changed the ending of the opera by having Carmen shoot Joe (“Don José”) instead of having Joe stab Carmen. Such reconsiderations are no doubt going to be part of our continuing conversation about the challenges of reviving older works, as occurred this Broadway season with My Fair Lady and Carousel.
But at what point do we simply move beyond these problematic works? I’m not necessarily advocating that we consign Othello, The Iceman Cometh, and Carmen Jones to the historical dustbin. Not necessarily. It could be argued that their value as art still outweighs whatever increasing discomfort we might have in watching them with the passage of time. But perhaps we should start talking with greater urgency about the need to replace these paternalistic narratives with new stories that don’t punish women for the failings of their men.
Carmen Jones presented by Classic Stage Company at the CSC Theater, 136 East 13th Street, through July 29, 2018. Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II; music by Georges Bizet. Directed by John Doyle; choreography by Bill T. Jones; scenic design by Scott Pask; costume design by Ann Hould-Ward; lighting design by Adam Honoré; sound design by Dan Moses Schreier; music supervision and orchestrations by Joseph Joubert.
Cast: Anika Noni Rose, David Aron Damane, Erica Dorfler, Clifton Duncan, Andrea Jones-Sojola, Justin Keyes, Lindsay Roberts, Soara-Joye Ross, Lawrence E. Street, and Tramell Tillman.
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Cover: David Aron Damane, Anika Noni Rose and Clifton Duncan in ‘Carmen Jones;’ photo: Joan Marcus.