Ethlouise, Noel, and I went to see *Carmen Jones* at the Classic Stage Company on 7/26/18. This was the first major New York revival of the 1943 musical. Oscar Hammerstein II took Bizet’s *Carmen* and rewrote the lyrics in English and set it in a wartime munitions factory, with an African-American cast. Otto Preminger directed the movie version in 1954, starring Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, and Pearl Bailey.
I love the Classic Stage Company and knew that their production would be first class. They have a tiny stage and always use the space in an inventive way - - this production was in the round, or to be precise, in the square. Director John Doyle gave the show a sharp focus and a strong point of view, he really delivered the drama. The choreography was by Bill T. Jones, so of course it was stellar.
The star of the show was Tony winner Anika Noni Rose, who also happens to be my downstairs neighbor! She couldn’t be sweeter, and though I realize it’s shallow to mention this, I have to say that she’s unspeakably beautiful. She was a spectacular Carmen. She fully inhabited the role, she radiated power and sexiness, and she sang like a dream. Her best singing was in the card scene: she stared the aria quietly and contained, gradually building it into a seismic wail of anguish.
Clifton Duncan played her leading man, Joe in this version (Don José in the original). He gave a strong performance, and in his final scene he achieved something new to me - - he made me feel for Joe. Usually you get the impression that he’s a crazy guy who’s obsessed with Carmen, but in this production you realized that he really loved her, he sacrificed a lot to be with her, and he’s understandably furious that she’s thrown him over for the new kid in town. Duncan’s singing was another story. The show bridges the gap between opera and musical, and Joe’s role is the most operatic of any of them, more demands are put on him than on the other singers, the vocal writing for him is the most extreme. Duncan sounded labored, tight, and unsteady. He hit every note, but it sometimes sounded like a fight to the death.
Soara-Joye Ross stopped the show as Frankie. She most successfully bridged the gap between an intimate, musical-style singing and a full-blown opera sound. Hammerstein took the “Gypsy Song” from the opera, which was originally for Carmen and her two cohorts, and made it a solo for Frankie, now called “Beat Out Dat Rhythm On a Drum.” Thrilling. I'm going to give you a a recording of Pearl Bailey singing the song in the movie, but first, to show you how drastic the transformation was from the original, here's the song in the Bizet opera, as performed by Elīna Garanča in the current Met production (conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon):
Here's Pearl Bailey in the movie:
And just for fun (like this hasn't been enough fun already, right?), here's Vladimir Horowitz playing his own totes cray cray virtuosic arrangement of the song: