Off-Broadway Review: “Carmen Jones” at Classic Stage Company

Joseph Verlezza

  • New York Theatre Critic

Because opera enthusiasts would be seduced by the music of Bizet and musical theater aficionados would savor a work that contained the lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein ll, it seems only logical to combine the talents of both to create a Broadway show. It was done in 1943 when Mr. Hammerstein adapted Bizet’s opera “Carmen,” moving it from a tobacco plant in Spain to an ammunition factory during World War ll in Charleston, South Carolina with an all African American cast. Although “Carmen Jones” was a moderate success with over five hundred performances, there has not been a full-scale revival on the New York stage until the present undertaking by director John Doyle at The Classic Stage Company. A film version surfaced in 1954 which was not well received by the press and social critics such as James Baldwin, especially since the civil rights movement was on the forefront and the content did not accurately identify the plight of African Americans at the time. The plot is a morality time bomb with a short fuse of seduction and betrayal, which triggers an explosive tragedy.

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Mr. Doyle has assembled an incredible cast that can do nothing wrong as they forge through the streamlined nine-five-minute, minimalist adaption, performed on the nearly bare wood planked playing area, which seems to have become a signature of the company this season. They are accompanied by six amazing musicians who fill the cavernous space with the beautiful orchestrations of music supervisor Joseph Joubert. This fast-paced version, albeit vocally superior, finds its fault in the lack of emotional connection between the characters, who are not afforded the necessary time or content to develop substantial relationships, which is paramount to the dramatic plot. Each actor competently defines their individual character with depth and passion. The sparse set design by Scott Pask comprised of ammunition boxes and parachute fabric sometimes makes it difficult to decipher exactly where the action is taking place if it were not for the dialogue and lyrics.

The moment that Anika Noni Rose steps onto the stage as the sexually charged Carmen, you are spellbound by her sultry mezzo soprano and alluring presence. Ms. Rose never loses command of the stage in a beguiling performance that is the pulse of the production. Clifton Duncan portrays Joe with a boyish charm, failing to subdue his manly ardor and falling prey to the seductive temptress. His sweet tenor is enchanting and robust supporting his vulnerability and rage. Hometown sweetheart Cindy Lou is impeccably captured by the delightful Lindsay Roberts who melts your heart with her vibrant authenticity to be supported by her pure and controlled vocals in “You Talk Just Like My Maw.” Soara-Joye Ross infuses Frankie with vivacious energy in a rousing rendition of “Beat Out Dat Rhythm on A Drum” always appearing solid and real. Prizefighter Husky Miller comes alive with the powerful bass of David Aron Damane as he leads the cast in the exhilarating “Stan’ Up An’ Fight.” The remainder of the cast is equally engaging playing multiple roles and supporting the production.

This ninety-five-minute adaption of the rarely revived “Carmen Jones” is tightly constructed by Mr. Doyle, with a remarkable cast of ten extremely talented and tenacious actors who embody their characters but also develop their souls. Purists may miss the values of a big Broadway production for which this was written but will certainly experience the intimate essence of a small chamber musical. The production is not perfect but do not miss this opportunity to see this obscure musical brought to life by this impressive cast.  

    

CARMEN JONES

The cast of “Carmen Jones” includes David Aron Damane, Erica Dorfler, Clifton Duncan, Andrea Jones-Sojola, Justin Keyes, Lindsay Roberts, Anika Noni Rose, Soara-Joye Ross, Lawrence E. Street, and Tramell Tillman.

Scenic design for “Carmen Jones” is by Scott Pask, costumes by Ann Hould-Ward, lighting by Adam Honoré, sound by Dan Moses Schreier and casting by Telsey + Company.  Music supervision and orchestrations are by Joseph Joubert. Production photos by Joan Marcus.

“Carmen Jones” runs at Classic Stage Company (136 East 13th Street) through Sunday August 19, 2018 on the following performance schedule: Tuesday through Thursday at 7:00 p.m.; Fridays at 8:00 p.m.; Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m.  Tickets are $65.00 weekdays/$70.00 weekends.  Prime seats are $125.00. For tickets, visit www.classicstage.org, call (212) 352-3101 or (866) 811-4111, or in person at the box office. Running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes without intermission.

Photo: Justin Keyes, Soara-Joye Ross, Anika Noni Rose, Erica Dorfler, and Lawrence E. Street in “Carmen Jones.” Credit: Joan Marcus.