It is the singing that defines and triumphs in the neatly scaled down production of “Carmen Jones, based on Georges Bizet’s opera, and being presented by the Classic Stage Company under the direction of John Doyle. With the audience on four sides of the compact stage, a superb group of performers make the songs potent and moving in the drama transposed to an American parachute factory in the South during World War II.
“Carmen Jones,” with book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, was produced on Broadway in 1943 and made a sensational impact, then became a film in 1954 directed by Otto Preminger with a prominent African-American cast headed by Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte. It is a wise move for the CSC to revive the stage version, and Doyle, known for his tightening of major theater pieces, is the right one to present it in a 95-minute version with choreography by Bill T. Jones.
Anika Noni Rose as Carmen, a new arrival in the factory with military personnel on hand, is a sexy teaser oozing the kind of eroticism that can drive men wild. She looks great in her figure-clinging dresses and her singing is terrific throughout. She immediately captivates Joe, a soldier played by Clifton Duncan, and what a majestic voice he has!
Joe’s back-home girl friend, Cindy Lou, shows up to pursue him, but by then he is hooked on Carmen. Lindsay Roberts as Cindy Lou is another with a marvelous voice, as she sings her frustrated feelings of love for Joe.
Carmen soon casts her eyes on Husky Miller, played by impressively tall and muscular David Aron Damane, who has a powerful voice to match his build. A rivalry is thus set-up between Joe and Miller, to be played out after travel to Chicago, where the action switches from the factory.
All of the supporting cast members are vocally excellent as well, including Erica Dorfler, Soara-Joye Ross, Tramell Tillman, Andrea Jones-Sojola, Lawrence E. Street and Justin Keyes. The staging is excellent and mobile, as cast members wander to various fringes of the playing area and sometimes interact with audience members. There is little in the way of a set. Some performers carry around storage boxes on which they perch, a few lights descend from the ceiling, and the biggest set manifestation is white cloth taken from a trunk and cleverly expanded into a huge tent-like covering.
By shortening the work and condensing the plot details, the dramatics get somewhat shortchanged and all the explosive relationships seem rushed without enough real time to develop. But the gambit results in primary focus on expression via the singing, and listening to one dynamic number after another brilliantly sung becomes a thrilling experience. One can come away amazed at all the talent that exists these days, and bringing back “Carmen Jones” is a major service to the theater. At the Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street. Phone: 866-811-4111. Reviewed June 28th, 2018.