The Review: Classic Stage Company’s Carmen Jones
The singing is glorious, as rich and stunning as that red dress, applied by the phenomenal costume designer, Ann Hould-Ward (CSC’s Pacific Overtures) that hugs the beautiful form of Carmen Jones, played with full-voiced sensuality by Anika Noni Rose (Caroline, or Change). She is the one standing center stage basking in the beautiful production that surrounds her on all four sides of Scott Pask’s (CSC’s Dead Poets Society) simple and exacting set. And we can’t take our eyes off of her, encouraged by a rapturous audience breathing in every sound created, she sways and radiates from the knowledge that she has that undeniable power over all the men and women in the room and the town. Those others in John Doyle’s (Broadway’s The Color Purple) superb recreation of this difficult piece of aged musical theatre deserve just as much of our loving gaze throughout. Each and every one enrich the piece as they vocally come together giving us a unified wall of gorgeousness, filling out the space, playing numerous roles with steadfast abandonment. With lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II (Carousel) layered onto Bizet’s classic operatic and lush score with orchestrations by Joseph Joubert (Broadway’s Disaster) and musical direction by Shelton Becton (Shuffle Along), the music history of this creature registers stronger than maybe it ever has.
Carmen Jones premiered in 1943 at The Broadway Theatre starred Muriel Smith (alternating with Muriel Rahn) in the title role. The production utilized the musical form of Bizet’s opera Carmen, which was based on the 1846 novella by Prosper Mérimée, but Hammerstein transported the story to a World War II-era factory setting using an all black cast. Carmen‘s tobacco factory became Carmen Jones‘ parachute/ammunition factory, and bullfighter Escamillo became boxer Husky Miller. Years later, director Otto Preminger created the 1954 adaptation on film, adapted by Hammerstein and Harry Kleiner, and starred Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte. It’s fascinating to learn that most of the actors who performing the songs in the film were dubbed, even the legendary Harry Belafonte (by LeVern Hutcherson), and Dorothy Dandridge by the soon to be well-known opera singer, Marilyn Horne. Classic Stage Company doesn’t have that luxury, nor does it need to, as every one of these singers excels, even the non-operatic voices fill the space with a spice and beauty that is astonishing. I just don’t know how they do this numerous show numerous times a week but what they do is glorious.
Standing opposed and entwined within Rose’s Carmen, is the striking presence of Joe, portrayed with a touching and bewildered manner by the solid tenor, Clifton Duncan (City Center Encores’ Assassins). He holds himself well along side that powerful red-dressed lady even though he can’t quite match her sexual prowess and strut. The entanglement feels a tad forced and the fire unsteady, but if he’s going to dive into that deep water, Rose’s Carmen is definitely worthy of daring the odds in that dangerous tide. With that striking presence and booming voice, David Aron Damane’s strong solid prizefighter, Husky Miller manages to distract Carmen’s eye with the lure of big city excitement, and why wouldn’t he. It’s easy to see why he demands her presence in Chicago, just as much as his presence demands her attention. Lindsay Roberts (City Center Encores’ Hey, Look Me Over!) in the ingénue role of Cindy Lou is also simply breathtaking, especially in her magnificent number closer to the end of the short 95 minute musical. She stops us dead with her heartfelt passion and innocence that is laced with a bit of worldly knowledge. She knows what she wants, even when she sees the flaws in her desire. If I love you, that’s the end of you, and her, and everyone in between.
All the others in this handsome sweet cast; the beautifully voiced Erica Dorfler (Broadway’s Natasha, Pierre,…) and Andrea Jones-Sojola (Broadway’s Porgy and Bess) as Myrt and Sally, the eye-catchingly sexy Justin Keyes (Jerry Springer: The Opera) as Rum, the solid Lawrence E. Street (Broadway’s Urinetown) as Dink, and the powerful Tramell Tillman (Red Bull’s Tis Pity…) as Sergeant Brown, lead us steadily along the path to the destruction we all know is coming. They roll with the punches, moving cartons around on that bare stage creating magic and environment with ease. It feels very immersive and engaging, evenly paced with quiet and straightforward lighting by Adam Honoré (APAC’s Raisin) and a sound design by Dan Moses Schreier (Broadway’s The Iceman Cometh) that sometimes feels over amplified in that small space. But it is in the middle showstopper, “Beat Out Dat Rhythm” (Gypsy Song in Bizet’s opera) when the theatre feels the heat and erotic excitement of the marvelous Soara-Joye Ross (Westside’s Disenchanted) as Frankie, as she leads the crew through the heartfelt gyrations of the sexual moment. They move like birds of prey sipping warm sweet syrup, choreographed with an earthly feel of history and honor by Bill T. Jones (Broadway’s Fela!). Everything in that theatre is alive in that moment. The piece as a whole feels a tad bit slow-moving, inauthentic at times, and disengaging in its rational moments of interaction, never making complete sense, especially during the finale which is clumsily staged and statically enacted, never striking a tragic or emotional cord. But you can’t help but feel the rhythm and the soul that beats in the heart of Carmen Jones at the CSC. The singing transcends it all, lifting us up to heights that only a parachute can help us down safely.