Review: An ambitious ‘Carmen Jones,’ set in the 1970s, disappoints at Fresno State
The Fresno State production of “Carmen Jones,” a musical based on the opera “Carmen,” is deeply flawed. On opening night, I was disappointed in nearly every aspect of the show, including the direction, creative concept, acting, vocals, scenic design, lighting design, choreography, sound design and orchestral accompaniment.
Pictured above: Aaleyah Wilson in ‘Carmen Jones.’ Photo: Fresno State
Pictured above: Aaleyah Wilson in ‘Carmen Jones.’ Photo: Fresno State
I’m aware of the significance of this African-American musical, which has an all-black cast. Director Thomas-Whit Ellis worked long and hard on this project in the service of a worthy goal: offering opportunities for an underserved and underrepresented demographic in local theater, both on and off campus. (Many in the cast are community members.) I’m also aware that, as a white male critic, the very act of me finding “Carmen Jones” lacking could be critiqued as problematic when considering my own background, experiences and race.
However, I believe that if I do not offer my honest appraisal of this production — or ignored it entirely, when I have reviewed all Fresno State productions for years — that act itself would be offensive. It would be saying that the same standards do not apply to all mainstage theater on campus.
My thoughts on the production:
First, some background. “Carmen Jones,” which opened on Broadway in 1943, used the music of Georges Bizet (who composed the 1875 opera version of “Carmen”) but substituted lyrics and a book written by Oscar Hammerstein II. The original “Carmen Jones” updated the opera to a World War II-era African-American setting. The cigarette factory of the opera became a wartime parachute factory. Pastia’s Inn became Billy Pastor’s jive cafe. The star bullfighter became a champion boxer.
I think the play is dated and borderline offensive. I’m not alone. In the original opera, Carmen is a Gypsy. Ben Brantley of the New York Times in 2018 wrote: “This was a work … that transliterated a 19th-century French opera depicting the supposedly lusty, homicidal nature of Gypsies into a 20th-century spectacle depicting the supposedly lusty, homicidal nature of black people.”
James Baldwin described the song “Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum,” as depicted in the 1954 movie adaptation, as “an abomination” and that the language made African-Americans sound “ludicrously false and affected, like antebellum Negroes imitating their masters.”
I would be curious to see last year’s acclaimed revival of the Classic Stage Company’s “Carmen Jones.” (The production just received a Lucille Lortel award for best musical revival, an honor given to off-Broadway shows.) Despite the material, director John Doyle made the material soar in ways that Hammerstein never intended. In a review, Brantley described the 2018 production: “Mr. Doyle and his team go with the magnetic flow and personality-shaping detail of the original composition. Music is character here; it is also destiny. Its sweep is such that the lines between speech and song are eradicated. Listening to the lingo that so appalled Baldwin, it might as well be French — an exotic, serviceable vehicle for the thrust and parry of melody.”
From Brantley’s description, it makes it sound as if a giant vacuum sucked up the musty plot and lyrics (which, incidentally, were written by a white man) and left behind only that which is pure and musical. While this approach seems to have worked in New York, nothing like it happens in the Fresno State production. It still feels musty.
Related story: With ‘Carmen Jones,’ Fresno State theater breaks new ground with its first black musical
The directorial concept doesn’t work. Ellis sets the Fresno State production in an unnamed city a train’s distance from Chicago. The time is the 1970s at an historically black college. (One good thing about the time period is that it gives a good inspiration for costume designer Kristine Doiel to provide an array of beautifully constructed period costumes, from bell bottoms to white belts. The show’s costume design is a definite strength.) Yet I remain unclear how the collegiate theme fits into the plot and overall concept of “Carmen Jones.”
Carmen (played by a confident and skillful Breayre Tender) appears to remain a factory worker in this version, while Joe (Joshua Slack, a fine actor who does not seem comfortable with the musical format), the man she seduces, is a member of the armed services. (There is one mention of Joe being in the ROTC that I caught, which is the only university connection in the book I could find. But belonging to the ROTC is much different than being an actual soldier in terms of going AWOL, a key plot point of “Carmen.”) There is only one scene that appears to be overtly collegiate. Fraternity and sorority banners descend, Greek letter sweaters are worn, and the energetic choreography (by Miss “K”atrina Steward) is in the stepping style. Beyond that particular part of the show, the ‘70s setting and the university connection feels arbitrary and confusing. The action shifts to a nightclub, then various settings in Chicago, and in these other locales, the university theme fades away.
Something important is lost as the era shifts from a brisk wartime setting to a time of flower power. A cry of “win that war!” is heard. Which war would that be: Vietnam? The 1970s are a far different era than World War II, and the style and tone of the book does not match the bell bottoms. There is no director’s note in the program to at least provide an audience member with more context. I do appreciate that Ellis took a risk with his concept, and it is exciting for a cast to get the opportunity to break new theatrical ground, but the result did not pay off.
The vocal styles are inconsistent. Some of the singers sing operatically; others try for a more soulful approach. Several offer a more speak-sing effect. Only one has the vocal power to give the emphatic, rousing, bittersweet communion with the music that the production needs. That promising voice belongs to Aaleyah Wilson, who plays Cindy Lou, Joe’s badly treated girlfriend. With her prim dresses and upright demeanor, she offers an interesting contrast to the free-spirited Carmen.
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The design for the show is not up to usual Fresno State standards. Liz Crifasi’s lighting design feels dim and listless. (Missed cues and a wayward follow-spot marred the opening night performance.) Jose Elagarza’s sound design fails to deliver many of the lyrics. Jeff Hunter’s industrial-inspired scenic design feels oppressive and provides few visual cues to the vastly different settings called for in the production; the prominent placement of the orchestra (in full view at all times) is uninspired.
There are issues with the orchestra. Conductor Josh Jensen on opening night allowed too many long, awkward pauses in the accompaniment. (He also played clarinet, which slowed him down at times.) This is not a leisurely concert in which the orchestra can take a brief breather between movements of a concerto; timing and pacing means everything. Too often the orchestra seemed to be reacting to the production instead of driving it forward. And some of the instrumental-only interludes make the production’s sometimes stodgy pace seem even more inert, leading to even longer and more awkward pauses in the action.
Finally, the production is hard to connect to emotionally and musically. The experience of musical theater should be one of feeling as if you’re enveloped by the world it creates. Musicals need to sing, and not just literally. The idea of characters breaking into song, which is about unlike real life as you can get, is a way to heighten the human experience and intensify the emotional potency of the material. The story of “Carmen Jones” includes tragedy, but there is no sense of dramatic buildup in this production, no foreboding, no propelling the audience forward to an inevitable conclusion both expected and shocking. I wasn’t immersed. I didn’t feel a sharp, guttural pang when things turn brutal. I didn’t feel much of anything.