Jude Kelly’s first big musical production as artistic head of the Southbank Centre is Carmen Jones, the 1943 Oscar Hammerstein (book and lyrics) re interpretation of the opera Carmen, retaining Bizet’s music with slight re-orchestrations. The Royal Festival Hall’s huge open stage now contains a South American style faded colonial street front, lampposts and rubbish bins, completed with the orchestra in the middle of the stage, so action can occur in front, besides and behind them (the full orchestra is provided alternately by one of the two RFH house orchestras, it was the London Philharmonic when I attended, wearing informal clothes too! The Philharmonia is the other.).
South America is not where Hammerstein relocated Carmen Jones to, it is actually a story set in the deep south of the USA with an all black cast. Kelly hasn’t changed one bit of the book or lyrics, and of course keeps the all black casting as the piece demands (so it’s not quite Latino ethnic variety), but the show is so absolutely American (with much of it set in Chicago, frequent US geographical references as well as the parlance) that these attempts to change the setting seem at times silly. Kelly says she wanted to give some contemporary relevance to the story, thereby relocating to South America, perhaps Cuba (and updating the costumes to modern dress), where the need for a standing army and the social situations portrayed in the show might make more sense than in the US black community today (then just do it as a period piece if accents and culture can’t be genuinely changed!). Unfortunately Hammerstein’s lyrics (and characters) are highly stereotypical of black people in the 1930s and 40s, which seems very dated now, that would be fine if the production didn’t so consciously strive for modernity. Happily however, this problem does not overshadow the entire production by Kelly, which is enjoyable, energetic and well sung (that’s not to take away from the attractive design by Michael Vale, the concept is the director’s).
This is quasi-opera, it has some of the feel of musical theatre and spoken dialogue, but ultimately the songs and music is mostly operatic, which means mostly operatic voices. Carmen is played by an astoundingly thin and quite beautiful South African actress Tsakane Valentine Maswanganyi, a fiery and changeable femme fatal. Her sometime lover, Joe, played by Andrew Clarke is totally smitten by her charms and leaves the more homely Cindy Lou (the excellent Sherry Boone) to follow Carmen. Carmen meanwhile has taken up with champion boxer Husky Miller (a superb performance by Rodney Clarke), to the inevitable deadly conclusion. The large ensemble is not extensively used, but when they get their chance they do very well indeed (the large numbers are the best, very compelling). There are some wonderful songs to be heard to the familiar Bizet music, as long as the words are audible (lots of the dialogue is lost in the cavernous hall, or behind music). I particularly enjoyed ‘Stan’ up an’ Fight’ the boxers big number and its effective reprise in the second act (’Dat’s Our Man!’), and ‘Beat Out Dat Rhythm On A Drum’, where the whole cast and orchestra unite to make a huge sound, with a great percussive underscore. Some of the acting can be a little broad, but then the material is pretty broad in the first place.
This is not a classic piece of musical theatre, Bizet’s music is memorable and easy on the ear, but Hammerstein’s story and lyrics seem very dated now. Nothing Jude Kelly does can stop this being a period piece, but it’s an interesting and often musically welcome one.
P.S: The unnecessarily lavish and thick papered programme costs a ridiculous £5, it may be a nice souvenir (still it’s has many pages of adverts and only three short articles, one on Bizet, one on Hammerstein, both effectively short biographies, and one on the Carmen story throughout culture) but it’s a hell of a cost for those just wishing to have some information on the cast and creative team. For £6 programmes at the Royal Opera House (though I rarely buy them) gives you hours of reading material.