BWW Review: CARMEN - An Afro-Cuban Jazz Musical at Olney Theatre Center - New Musical Sizzles With Sensuality

BWW Review: CARMEN - An Afro-Cuban Jazz Musical at Olney Theatre Center - New Musical Sizzles With Sensuality

One again, the Olney Theatre Center has a show that has Havana front and center. It was just a few months ago we were transported to Cuba in their wonderful production of GUYS AND DOLLS.

When you think of Cuba...what comes first into your mind? For my generation, it was Ricky Ricardo starring in "I Love Lucy" (with Lucille Ball) and his great Cuban band led by Desi Arnez.

Then there was the disastrous "Bay of Pigs" invasion in April, 1961, when 1400 Cuban exiles launched a botched invasion of Cuba from the United States, just two years after Fidel Castro came to power after an armed revolt against the Dictator, Fulgencio Batista. What a catastrophe.

I just saw a terrific rendition of "The Cuban Overture" by George Gershwin at the Baltimore Symphony's historic 100th Anniversary (review to follow).

There is the marvelous Cuban infused ON YOUR FEET on Broadway which chronicles the story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan and their music in which Act 1 ends with the cast doing the dance "The Conga" through the audience and features wonderful choreography by Sergio Trujillo (more about him in a minute).

Cuba is now front and center at the Olney Theatre Center where I was honored to attend the local premiere of this co-production with the Tectonic Theater Production which takes the classic opera CARMEN (an opera from a French composer, Bizet, sung in Italian, which takes place in Seville, Spain at a cigar factory) to Havana Cuba in 1958.

Thanks to a relationship between Olney Theatre Center's Artistic Director Jason Loewith and the acclaimed Moises Kaufman (Co-Book Writer, Lyricist, Director, Artistic Director-Tectonic Theater Project), this commendable project is sure to be a sell-out. There is so much talent involved in this production. Six of the actors have been on Broadway (one on a Broadway tour) and seven members of the creative team have Broadway credentials including Tony Awards.

Co-writer Eduardo Machado is Cuban born and has written over 50 plays.

Grammy Award Composer Arturo O'Farrill is the leader of the "first family of Afro-Cuban Jazz" according to the New York Times.

Sound Designer Robert Kaplowitz won a Tony for the musical FELA! and has been designing sound and composing for 23 years.

Lighting Designer David Lander is a frequent collaborator with Kaufman. CARMEN is their 15th production together. Lander has many Broadway credits.

Clint Ramos (Costume Designer) has Broadway credits including THE ELEPHANT MAN and VIOLET.

Now back to Sergio Trujillo. When I noticed he would be coming to Olney to do the Choreography, I really got excited. Trujillo is represented on Broadway at the moment with JERSEY BOYS and the previously mentioned ON YOUR FEET. He and his associate Marcos Santana also worked on Broadway with GUYS AND DOLLS.

Finally, the Scenic Designer Narelle Sissons did ALL MY SONS on Broadway.

Add to this incredible backstage team, is the amazing cast and terrific ensemble. The 18 member cast is just plain terrific. They demonstrate enough energy and talent that it will take your breath away.

What the writers did is to move the story of CARMEN from Seville in 1875 to 1958 Havana where the peasants are beginning a revolution. There still is the cigar factory from the opera. There still is the sexy, sensual femme fatale cigar factory worker "Carmen" played by the amazing Christina Sajous. When she enters the bar next door to the factory after a work day, as in the opera, she heads to a pool of water and wipes her sweaty face and neck with her wet handkerchief. Every eye in the theater was transfixed and focused on "Carmen". And when she sings? It was goose-bump city.

Her "Carmen" reminded me of the lead character in Lynn Nottage's play, RUINED where like here, a flirtatious barkeep in the middle of a Civil War in Africa, must walk the fine line between two warring factions looking out for "Number One". Here, Carmen smuggles munitions to the revolutionaries fighting the battle against Batista, yet falls in love with one of Batista's soldiers, Jose (the superb Brandon Andrus) who soon follows Carmen to the hills to aid the revolution.

But when Jose sees Carmen in Havana fall for the champion boxer Camilo (the charming Caesar Samayoa), one can envision this will cause a serious problem.

Playing the narrator/friend of Carmen, Fina, is the wonderful Michelle Alves. Fina is a female "Che" who like in the musical EVITA describes the events at the beginning and end of the play.

Thankfully, the audience is able to watch the talented 11 piece orchestra at the rear of the stage under the baton of Olney Associate Artistic Director-Music Theater/Musical Director Christopher Youstra who not only conducts but is at the piano. It's a real treat to watch these musicians in action. And I am also pleased to report that the musicians at Olney are now members of the Washington D.C. Federation of Musicians, Local 161-710 of the American Federation of Musicians giving them the same rights as the members of Actor's Equity.

I highly recommend one get to the theater early and partake of the wonderful program which gives invaluable history surrounding Cuba and information about Santeria, a combination of African beliefs and Catholicism. You will see actors using "cards" and "dice" to look into the future. I was a little surprised to see that Artistic Director Loewith is the Dramaturg of this production (along with Alexandra Ley, Associate Dramaturg) and the four pages in the program will add to your enjoyment.

Do I predict a future for CARMEN? You bet. Look for this compelling piece of theater to soon make its way to Broadway. I look forward to buying the CD when it does! The music is that good.

CARMEN continues to March 6 and runs almost two hours without an intermission. For tickets, call 301-924-3400 or visit There are "Talk Backs" after the 2 p.m. matinees on Feb. 20, 27 and March 5. Do not miss it!


There has never been a time when Broadway musicals are getting so much exposure on television.

Hope you got to see GREASE: LIVE on Fox, January 31, 2016. Thomas Kail, Director of the hit musical HAMILTON, directed his first fling at television. The creative team included Baltimore's Marc Platt, producer of WICKED and HAMILTON scenic designer David Korins.

GREASE:LIVE thankfully incorporated an audience (unlike the three NBC television musicals). The action took place both on a sound stage and outside (a full-scale carnival). It was a great improvement having a live audience. I look for other similar productions to do likewise.

Sandy was played by Julianne Hough ("Dancing With the Stars"), Danny by Aaron Tveit (Signature's DINER and Arena's NEXT TO NORMAL, and Rizzo by Vanessa Hudgens (GIGI at the Kennedy Center). Choreography was by Zach Woodlee ("Glee"). There were two new songs by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey (NEXT TO NORMAL). Didi Conn also appeared as a Frosty Palace waitress.

Also just announced that NBC's next musical will be HAIRSPRAY.

ABC is working on DIRTY DANCING with Andy Blankenbuehler (HAMILTON) doing the chorography.

Speaking of Blankenbuehler, he will choreograph CATS which will return to Broadway this summer. Previews begin July 14 with an opening on August 2 at the Neil Simon Theater.

Finally, Baltimore's own Pippa Pearthree will be in the new Broadway cast of TUCK EVERLASTING. The cast also includes Carolee Carmello and Terrence Mann. It will be directed by Casey Nicholaw.

Congratulations to HAMILTON for their Grammy Award for Best Broadway cast album. What a joy it was to see their "live" performance on the Grammy Award Show, a first for that award show.

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