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Review: ‘Carmen: An Afro-Cuban Jazz Musical’ at Olney Theatre Center

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Carmen: An Afro-Cuban Jazz Musical, in its world premiere at The Olney Theatre Center, is worthy of an endless stream of accolades including ‘dazzling,’ ‘amazing,’ ‘stupendous,’ ’emotional’, and ‘phenomenal.’ The creative minds, technical support, and actors come together to put on a Broadway-ready musical.

Carmen (Christina Sajous) and José (Brandon Andrus). Photo by Stan Barouh.

Carmen (Christina Sajous) and José (Brandon Andrus). Photo by Stan Barouh.

Based on Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen, writers Moisés Kaufman and Eduardo Machado brought a totally new feel to by placing the action in Cuba in 1958 just as the Batista government was being toppled by Fidel Castro and his revolutionary army.

Arturo O’Farrill’s music, written with an Afro-Cuban beat, and played marvelously by an on-stage band conducted by Christopher Youstra, made the production feel fresh and young. Though new lyrics were developed by Moises Kaufman, Jason Loewith, and Christopher Youstra, several of the more recognizable arias from Bizet’s Carmen, including the “Habanera” (“Love is a Restless Bird”) and “The Toreador Song (a song of victory) firmly grounded this production to the original even for those who may never have seen Bizet’s opera.

Carmen was co-produced with the Tectonic Theater Project which was first widely known for their production of The Laramie ProjectThe effect of their Moment WorkTM, where a complete environment is created with which the actors engage, dramatically increased the cohesiveness of Carmen.

A short recap for those who do not know the story line of Carmen. Carmen is strong and smoldering and has the guts to stand up to Batista’s army and unwanted suitors. She befriends José, a member of the army who is already engaged to someone else. Because of his protection of Carmen, he gets sent to jail. His fiancée pines for him though he can think of no-one but Carmen. After his release, he helps Carmen and the other members of the rebellion smuggle firearms to Castro’s troops. Carmen is interested in smuggling only for the money she makes from it. José becomes a true revolutionary and can’t believe that Carmen won’t stick by him. While José is in the mountains, Carmen returns to Havana and takes up with a famous boxer. When José finds out, he plots his revenge.

Oh, what a glorious cast! Many are straight from New York. Both the leads and the ensemble could act, dance, and sing effortlessly while using all three skills to express a wide variety of emotions. Lighting, designed by David Lander, supported them gloriously, and emphasized the mood of each scene.

Christina Sajous plays Carmen as a strong, sexy woman who uses people for what she wants and abandons them when they no longer suit her purpose.  Sajous’s Broadway pipes and ability to act in supercilious manner made her perfect for the role. Though often dressed much as the other females in the cast, Costume Designer Clint Ramos always ensured that there was something more sexy or powerful about her, ranging from a red slip worn under her work uniform to a party dress that was several notches up from the others.

José (Brandon Andrus), Carmen’s main romantic interest, has a voice and personality as strong as Carmen’s. One of Jose’s problems is his fiancée, Micaela (Brianna Carlson-Goodman), who shows up at twice at the most inconvenient times for José. Micaela Carlson-Goodman is appropriately meek, but her attitude can not hide her powerful and beautiful voice.

Fina (Michelle Alves) and Mercedes (Sumayya Ali) were a dynamic duo, often seen together whether at a nightclub or late at night in the woods using cards to see into their romantic futures. One of my favorite scenes is when Fina, Mercedes, and Carmen and in the mountains. While the first two are having a laugh over their possible romantic futures, Carmen, who believes in Santeria, throws her shells to see her fate. She discovers that her romantic future will end in death.

Some of the action at the beginning of Carmen involves some rather nasty Batista soldiers including Willy Duarte (George Akram), Zúñiga (Dick Duckart), Roberto (Moses Bernal), and Diego (Calvin McCullough), angered when spurned by Carmen and ready to beat up anyone who they believe has betrayed Batista. Many of these fine actors rotated in and out of the ensemble where they sang and danced beautifully.

Caesar Samayoa, as Camilo, the victorious boxer, shows bluster in both his actions and strong voice. In addition to his bravado while entering a club after earning one of boxing’s super huge belts, he tries to take command of Carmen. Her rejection of him at that time is in stark contrast to her alliance with him when it suits her needs.

Carmen (Christina Sajous) and the ensemble. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Carmen (Christina Sajous) and the ensemble. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Another favorite scene shows the consequences of Carmen’s shifting allegiances and how the lighting, sound, and Sergio Trujillo’s incredibly energetic and thrilling choreography, all came together to provide a stunning visually exciting time in the theater. As Jose returns to town and confronts Carmen, the boxing match engaging Camilo’s attention begins to move in slow motion, the crowd watching the fight also moves in slow motion, and the lights begin to flicker. It is with this backdrop that José discovers Carmen’s intentions and spurns him resulting in her demise.

Carmen: An Afro-Cuban Jazz Musical is one of the most exciting shows that has ever appeared on our DC area stages. This show has legs and I urge you to get your tickets fast!

Running Time: One hour and forty minutes, with no intermission.

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Carmen: An Afro-Cuban Jazz Musical co-produced by the Olney Theatre Center and Tectonic Theater Project – plays through March 6, 2016 at Olney Theatre Center – 2001 Olney Sandy Spring Road, in Olney, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 924-3400, or purchase them online

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One Response to Review: ‘Carmen: An Afro-Cuban Jazz Musical’ at Olney Theatre Center

  1. Lisa Otterström February 15, 2016 at 5:45 am #

    Bravo! I agree wholeheartedly with your review.

    Carmen: An Afro-Cuban Jazz musical is a daring remake of the famous Carmen: the Opera. The adaptation in music by these incredible musicians, dancers, actors and singers as well as the choreography, lighting and staging made it a wonderful musical with passionate flair.

    Don’t deny your visit to Cuba at the Olney theater and get a chance to learn about the history, political reality and culture before Fidel Castro. Mesmerizing!