Most of us tend to forget that between OKLAHOMA! and CAROUSEL, Oscar Hammerstein had another Broadway hit.
CARMEN JONES opened on Dec. 3, 1943 — eight months after OKLAHOMA’S debut — and ran a then-impressive 503 performances.
It was the illustrious librettist-lyricist’s reimagining of Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy’s libretto for the famed 1875 Opera CARMEN.
Oh, yes: Georges Bizet wrote the music that is best-remembered today, and Hammerstein used it. Yet given his career choices, he probably would prefer that the librettists be mentioned first.
Hammerstein changed the time and place from 1820 Seville to then-contemporary Chicago and fashioned it for an all-African-American cast. Leave it to Ockie, who wanted everyone to be carefully taught to welcome all races and creeds. For fifteen months, he provided opportunities and employment for 109 on-stage performers and who knows how many understudies.
There are 100 fewer performers on stage right now at the Classic Stage Company where CARMEN JONES is playing. True, quantity is always desirable in a musical, but the quality of Hammerstein and Bizet’s work — and artistic director John Doyle and his exemplary cast — makes this a stunning, must-not-miss revival.
It weighs in at 100 intermissionless lyrics, which means that some songs/arias have been dropped, although little seems lost. Too bad, though, that the glorious overture — which makes GYPSY’s seem like ARI’s — has been truncated. Perhaps the decision was made because the orchestra is now chamber-sized. Once the nonet starts singing, however, each unit is a perfect fit with the other.
CARMEN JONES starts in a munitions factory where boxes must be moved — forcing the three female ensemble members to do some heavy lifting, too.
We’re first introduced to Joe, a lieutenant who dreams of becoming a military pilot as well as a husband to Cindy Lou, who looks sweet in her prim Woolworth-worthy dress.
No sooner have they entered than a soldier starts ogling Cindy Lou. Joe’s look of jealousy sets up what’s to come; by show’s end, Othello’s eyes will in comparison seem to be a most light shade of lime green.
They’ll come non-courtesy of Carmen Jones, a thoroughly amoral don’t-give-a-damn man-eater who has the conscience of a tarantula. It’s not just that Carmen knows that the way to a man’s heart is through his penis. She’s undoubtedly the closest thing to a dominatrix the mainstream musical theater has ever seen. Her hands with their fiery orange fingernails often become claws. (Ann Hould-Ward has dressed her in a most appropriate fiery orange dress with a little black lace bra peeking out.)
And because Joe doesn’t go after her the way all men do, Carmen Jones (as she refers to herself in the third person) must have him as the latest trophy in her collection of to-be- discarded men. We can’t say that she throws herself at him. A more accurate description would be that she hurls herself at him.
What she does throw him is a rose. We can see his intentions when he hides it in his jacket when he sees Cindy Lou coming on the scene.
Carmen falls under military arrest and Joe’s jurisdiction. Even with her hands tied, she can seduce by rubbing her back against Joe’s.
As the title character, Anika Noni Rose, who impressively played a child in CAROLINE, OR CHANGE and a Dream (in more ways than one) in DREAMGIRLS, is spectacular. Who knew that she could sing grand opera (which, needless to say, this music is)? Middle-of-the-road musical theatergoers for whom opera only means PHANTOM or THREEPENNY must prepare themselves for lots of lofty singing, for which this entire cast is well-equipped.
You’d think after OKLAHOMA! that Hammerstein wouldn’t include anything inorganic in one of his musicals, but here’s the seemingly irrelevant “Beat out Dat Rhythm on a Drum.” To be fair, it sets the mood of a good-time dive that is just the place that Carmen would frequent. Here’s guessing, though, that Hammerstein included it because opera lovers would expect Bizet’s “Gypsy Song” in any adaptation of CARMEN.
Enter Husky Miller, a star prizefighter who looks right at home on this stage, for the theater has been reconfigured to resemble a boxing ring with the audience seated on all four sides. (David Aron Demane makes Husky a champ when he sings “Stand up and Fight” — or what highbrows know as “Toreador Song”).
Carmen sees that Husky is rich, famous and powerful (in more ways than one) so when he eases himself into a chair, Doyle has her match Husky’s descent into the seat with the same slow and sexy trajectory as his.
Robert Longden and Hereward Kaye wrote in the MOBY DICK musical that “Love Will Always Try to Make Fools of Us All.” Joe’s theme here can be better expressed by Michael Stewart’s less conditional lyric for BARNUM: “Love Makes Such Fools of Us All.”
The plot demands that Joe go stir-crazy and stir up trouble. That’s just the start to which the non-stop demon-possessed Clifton Duncan descends in a completely galvanic performance.
The climax comes in a piece of music that’s less an eleven o’clock number than an eleventh-hour showdown. To paraphrase one of SUNSET BOULEVARD’s most famous little lines, great divas have great pride — and Carmen has us believing that she’d rather die than show any fear. As for Cindy Lou, she disappears for quite some time, but we’re glad that she returns, for Lindsay Roberts delivers a dynamic “My Joe” (a/k/a “Michaela’s Air).”
Productions and even staged readings of CARMEN JONES are exceedingly rare. Few dare to tackle an opera, but Doyle has. So, to ask a question posed in a song whose melody was composed by Hammerstein’s most famous collaborator, “Have You Met Miss Jones”? If not, now is certainly the time.