Oscar Hammerstein II’s adaptation of Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera Carmen into a musical, Carmen Jones, is rarely staged, so the revival at Classic Stage Company production is a happy resurrection of his 1943 effort. Nonetheless, although it is gloriously sung, the 90-minute production doesn’t make a case that Hammerstein’s musical theater version is the equal of Bizet’s opera. It’s never going to be in the standard repertory.
Hammerstein rejiggers the libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy for a mid-20th-century wartime setting, and transforms the Spanish characters to American blacks, complete with “Negro dialect” written into the book, as when Carmen sings “The Habanera”:
“You go for me and I’m taboo.
But if you’re hard to get, I go for you
And if I do, then you are through, boy
My baby, dat’s de end of you.”
Yet it’s not as offensive as it may read; Hammerstein had already, back in 1927, worked on Show Boat, another vehicle that gave blacks a platform to show their talents to the fullest. Even if by today’s standards the libretto of Carmen Jones hovers awkwardly near political incorrectness, it’s an enjoyable and engaging piece with fully realized people.
In Hammerstein’s tweaking, the gypsy Carmen (Anika Noni Rose) is now working in an ordnance factory—when she bothers to show up. She’s a good-time girl, and parties on weekdays as well as weekends. She sets her cap for Joe Smith (Clifton Duncan), an Army corporal, but eventually drops him for heavyweight boxer Husky Miller (David Aron Damane) rather than a toreador—it’s hard to find toreadors in the U.S. hinterlands.
Joe, meanwhile, gets a lot of razzing from his Army colleagues, especially after his childhood sweetheart, Cindy Lou (Lindsay Roberts) shows up with troubling news about his mother’s health. Having just fallen for the haughty minx Carmen, Joe makes no effort to get back home, while Cindy Lou waits for a decision. There’s also an uncomfortable modern resonance in the in the way the Army men harass toward Cindy Lou. They tell her she can’t leave, and there’s a barely disguised threat of rape in “We would like a slice of something nice/You’re savin’ up for Joey….” One has to wonder whether the Army in 1943 had any objection to Hammerstein portraying its heroic warriors so equivocally.
Given that the musical skeleton of Carmen Jones is opera, even one with a strong libretto, the plot is secondary to the singing. Melody after melody is familiar (even if one isn’t an opera buff, they’ve been used in cartoons over and over, like von Suppé overtures).
Still, Anika Noni Rose brings a sinuousness to the siren Carmen, who exults in her ability to seduce men and drop them. If her sexual freedom gives the piece a strong feminist cast, it’s just a fresh reminder that the great talents of earlier generations weren’t as completely clueless as they are sometime regarded nowadays.
Toward Joe, though, Carmen begins to feel a bit more deeply, and she tries to persuade him to desert the Army and travel to Chicago where they can live together. Rose is quite good at creating interest in an unsympathetic character, and her singing is terrific. Duncan, for his part, is tall and virile, and both—along with the entire cast—have superb diction so that not a word is muddied.
For the last few shows at CSC, director John Doyle has used three sides of the space for seating. Carmen adds a fourth bank of seats so that the performers are surrounded on all sides, and the immediacy and intimacy add considerably to its power. Modern dance icon Bill T. Jones, even with limited space available to him, creates some vigorous and compelling choreography for this chamber version.
The supporting cast of singers and dancers is also outstanding. Lindsay Roberts as Cindy Lou captures both the fresh decency of a country girl and a streak of spunkiness. She has a late solo that’s beautifully rendered. Damane has a strong bass voice as the thuggish boxer, and Justin Keyes, a wiry dancer, handles the glibness of the boxing promoter equally well. And Tramell Tillman is excellent as the brutish Sgt. Brown.
The set is skimpy, but Ann Hould-Ward’s colorful costumes provide visual flourish—the women wear bright dresses and full skirts, but there’s also plenty of olive drab. Carmen Jones is a piece of theater that still works well, even if it will always be overshadowed by one of the most popular operas ever written.
Classic Stage Company’s production of Carmen Jones runs through Aug. 19 at the theater (136 E. 13th St., between Third and Fourth Avenues). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. There is no performance on July 4; there will be an evening performance at 7 p.m. July 2 instead. For tickets and information, call (212) 677-4210 or visit classicstage.org.