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Carmen Jones

Theatre Review by David Hurst - June 27, 2018

David Aron Damane, Anika Noni Rose, Clifton Duncan
Photo by Joan Marcus

Unless you happened to have seen the original Broadway production or one of two relatively recent London mountings, odds are you haven't seen Carmen Jones on stage. Productions of this musical are so rare as to be virtually non-existent, but Classic Stage Company's new, stripped-down revival, courtesy of CSC's artistic director John Doyle, will change that for many musical theatre fans. And that's a good thing. There's a lot in this staging that's wonderful and, for the most part, Georges Bizet's justifiably famous score is well served. But whether CSC's revival should be called Carmen Jones Lite, or Carmen Jones: Greatest Hits, will depend on how strongly those fans believe in truth in advertising for a musical that's had an hour cut out of it and had its glorious orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett reduced to a scant six-piece combo up in a loft. For many, if not most, it won't bother them at all. But for some it might be a sacrilege.

An adaptation of Bizet's classic opera Carmen by famed lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, Carmen Jones utilizes a WWII setting and an entirely African-American cast for a timeless story of lust and obsession centered on a factory girl who knows what she wants, regardless of whether she's making cigarettes or parachutes. As the tempestuous Carmen, Tony-winner Anika Noni Rose is sensational. Playful, sultry and dangerous, she moves like a panther and sings like a goddess, displaying an impressive head-voice. Audiences who only know Rose from her work in Caroline, or Change or the film of Dreamgirls will be astonished by her singing here. As Joe, the Army grunt who falls for Carmen only to be destroyed by her, Clifton Duncan (The Balladeer in City Center's Assassins) is a commanding presence that registers the pain of Carmen's fickleness with palpable intensity. He too has a lovely voice but, unfortunately, the tessitura of Joe's role lies to high for Duncan to sing comfortably and one worries about his longevity in a part for which he's vocally ill suited and visibly straining to sing.

Andrea Jones-Sojola, David Aron Damane, Lawrence E. Street,
Justin Keyes, Soara-Joye Ross, Tramell Tillman, Erica Dorfler
Photo by Joan Marcus

Rounding out the love triangle is David Aron Damane as Husky Miller, a famous, heavyweight boxer who catches Carmen's eye before stealing her away from Joe. Damane's rich bass voice is as imposing as his physical presence; an ideal villain! As Cindy Lou, Joe's girl from back home who tracks him down on the Army base in an attempt to win his heart, Lindsay Roberts' soprano possesses a crystalline shimmer ideally suited to her songs. The small ensemble in Carmen Jones is a wealth of riches, particularly the three women, Erica Dorfler, Andrea Jones-Sojola and Soara-Joye Ross, who are called on to sing an extraordinary amount of difficult music. Ross, in particular, is given the lion share of high notes in the choral numbers, all of which she sings flawlessly.

But despite the superb cast and great singing, something about Carmen Jones just doesn't quite feel right. If you were telling the story of African-American men and women during WWII today, would this be what it would look and sound like? It may come down to whether you see the glass half-full or half-empty, or whether the depiction of black lives through white men's eyes is a problem or a virtue. Still, with all those concerns brought to bear, there's no denying CSC's Carmen Jones is a rare opportunity to see a piece of theatrical history brought to life, even if that portrayal is reduced in scope and ambition.

Carmen Jones
Through July 29
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street
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