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BWW Review: Anika Noni Rose is Captivating , But John Doyle Heavily Edits Oscar Hammerstein's CARMEN JONES


This is not shaping up to be a good year for Oscar Hammerstein II, American musical theatre's most important writer, who spent the first half of the 20th Century not only making significant strides to convert the genre from loosely assembled entertainments into respected and influential pieces of dramatic art, but was also a leading voice in promoting progressive values through his books and lyrics for such musicals as SHOW BOAT, SOUTH PACIFIC and THE KING AND I.

Carmen Jones
Anika Noni Rose
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

This past April saw the Broadway opening of director Jack O'Brien's drastically edited revival of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's 1945 masterpiece, CAROUSEL, with much of its material attacking the passive acceptance of physical spousal abuse diluted and nearly all of its material attacking manipulative spousal abuse obliterated.

Now, in the first season of director John Doyle's artistic directorship with Classic Stage Company, Hammerstein's adaptation of composer Georges Bizet and co-librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy's 1875 opera, "Carmen," retitled Carmen Jones, is mounted with such an abundance of cuts that the full length running time of the piece has been reduced to an intermissionless 95 minutes.

Such treatment would be more or less expected in the theatre community, as Doyle is known for making substantial cuts to musicals he mounts in revivals, such as THE COLOR PURPLE and CSC's recent PACIFIC OVERTURES. But unlike the living authors of those pieces, Hammerstein, who died in 1960, obviously did not get the opportunity to approve of, or reject, these changes to his work. Additionally, when such extreme editing isn't credited in advertising and/or program billing, as is the case with Carmen Jones (and, for that matter, O'Brien's CAROUSEL), unaware audience members can be misled into thinking that what they're seeing represents what the author created, thus altering the public's perception of our cultural history.

For those who don't care about such matters, the knockout performance of Anika Noni Rose, playing the title role with an intelligently icy presence, a thrillingly interpretive singing voice and a subtly seductive manner that easily manipulates the crass, aggressive men who desire her, makes the endeavor well worth a visit. Just make sure you're seated in the 100 section of the four-sided setup, as the staging substantially favors that side.

As written in his introduction to Carmen Jones' published libretto, Hammerstein's belief that the choice between hearing productions sung in languages they don't understand or hearing inept English translations that are focused on direct accuracy more than lyric-writing craft was the main reason for opera to be regarded as an elitist art form in America. This was his attempt to prove that accessibility and lyrical artistry could make opera just as popular in the states as musical comedy.

CARMEN JONES also contributed greatly to disproving the popular belief among white Americans of that time that black people were mostly incapable of the demands of singing European opera. When the piece began its 503 performance Broadway run in 1943, it employed over 100 African-American performers (the leading players doubled up), the great majority of whom, due to the attitudes of the times, never worked on stage before.

Meilhac and Halévy took their story from Prosper Merimee's same-named novella. Set in Seville, Spain, the title character is a gypsy employed in a tobacco factory, who is accustomed to having her way by sexually manipulating men. When she's arrested for using a knife to attack a co-worker, Corporal Don Jose, romantically involved with the sweet and kind Micaela, is assigned to watch over her. But when Carmen uses her irresistible wiles to escape, Don Jose is arrested and the seductress eventually sets her charms on a bombastic bullfighter, Escamillo.

The opera's score contains two of the most popular arias in history, Carmen's luring "Habanera," telling of the pleasures and pains of love, and Escamillo's "Toreador Song," dramatically celebrating the glories and dangers of the bull ring.

Hammerstein saw the parallels between the treatment of gypsies in 19th Century Spain and African-Americans during World War II, and set Carmen Jones in a wartime parachute factory, with the title character serving as a Rosie The Riveter, albeit one who continually arrives late for her shifts after partying all night with the boys. Don Jose is now a corporal named Joe, Micaela is his hometown sweetheart Cindy Lou and the bullfighter is turned into boxing champ Husky Miller.

With orchestrations by the great master Robert Russell Bennett, Hammerstein's adaptation made minimal editing of Bizet's composition.

"Two melodies were cut. A few repeated passages have been cut. The recitative has been supplanted by dialogue," was his summation.

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

His written words dictate a dialect that might be viewed as a racist stereotype by modern standards, but it should be taken into consideration that he did the same for the white characters of OKLAHOMA!

A comparison of Hammerstein's published script with the one used for CSC's intimate, 10-actor production reveals extensive cutting of choral sections and dance moments (thus, choreographer Bill T. Jones is rather underutilized), and the editing of dialogue, shaving the piece down to what best keeps the story moving. The trouble is, as is the case with most operas of the classical era, it's the music, not the story, that is meant to be the main attraction.

So cutting Carmen Jones down to its not especially compelling plot dilutes what Hammerstein originally achieved. The stereotypically sexist depiction of a "good man" driven to madness and violence when a skilled temptress drives him away from the safe, uncomplicated arms of the nice girl he loves is not of the same ilk as the well-crafted, character-driven musicals he wrote with Rodgers, but the goal was different here, and he was working within the confines of what his deceased collaborator created. Thus, it's the melodramatic story that's in charge, rather than emotional depth. Characters sing lustily of love, but it seems more like wartime friskiness.

Fortunately, Doyle has employed an exceptional ensemble of actor/singers who oftentimes sound downright glorious under the music direction of Shelton Becton. Not only does Rose give striking acting performance in the title role, but her soprano is suitably captivating. Lovely-voiced Lindsay Roberts is a charming Cindy Lou and Clifton Duncan does fine work as the fickle-hearted Joe. David Aron Damane's booming voice certainly defines the self-centered pugilist.

The excellent supporting company includes Erica Dorfler, Justin Keyes, Lawrence E. Street, Tramell Tillman and Andrea Jones-Sojola, with standout Soara-Joye Ross bursting with energy as she leads Hammerstein's rousing revision of "Gypsy Song," titled "Beat Out Dat Rhythm On a Drum."

Joseph Joubert provides spirited orchestrations for six pieces, but no drums, interestingly enough.

Scott Pask's minimalist set design utilizes little more than military crates, parachute cloth and ceiling fans.

To be sure, there's nothing inherently wrong with presenting grand works on a smaller, Off-Broadway scale, but the continued practice of slicing and dicing the efforts of deceased authors, especially a master like Hammerstein, sacrifices the opportunity revivals provide to connect audiences to the authentic artistry of another era. If we can deplore revisionist history in our classrooms, why encourage it in our theatres?

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