‘Carmen Jones’ runs through July 29 at Classic Stage Company. 136 E. 13th St., classicstage.org
French-language grand opera becomes English-language scaled-down musical theater with a decidedly American twist in Classic Stage Company’s reconceived and absorbing Off-Broadway revival of the rarely-seen “Carmen Jones,” in which stage and screen actress Anika Noni Rose gives an authoritative and sexy performance in the title role.
In 1943, legendary lyricist and book-writer Oscar Hammerstein II had two hit shows on Broadway. One of them (“Oklahoma!”) revolutionized the American musical and ushered in its golden age. The other (“Carmen Jones”) was a curious, one-time experiment that was popular in its day, received a 1954 film version and is rarely seen today.
English translations of famous operas have never really caught with New York operagoers or theatergoers. The interplay of opera and American musical theater is instead seen in musicals inspired by operas like “Rent” (“La Boheme”), “Miss Saigon” (“Madame Butterfly”) and Elton John’s “Aida” (Verdi’s “Aida”).
In “Carmen Jones,” Hammerstein went beyond simply translating Bizet’s 1875 French opera “Carmen” into English. He reset the opera from 19th-century Seville to the American South circa World War II and featured an all-black cast.
The gypsy Carmen became Carmen Jones, parachute factory worker; the corporal Don Jose became Joe, aspiring military aviator; the toreador Escamillo became Husky Miller, championship boxer; and the village maiden Micaela became Cindy Lou, innocent girl next door.
While Hammerstein’s slang-style lyrics have not aged especially well (i.e. “Dere’s a Café on de Corner,” “Whizzin’ Away Along de Track”), “Carmen Jones” remains an unusual and fascinating historical artifact.
Director John Doyle — who brings a minimalist aesthetic to everything he touches — has scaled it down musically, visually and textually. With a six-piece orchestra and an empty, in-the-round space, the musical runs at 100 minutes without an intermission.
While the opera’s blockbuster moments may feel underpowered, he arias and two-character scenes take on extended potency in the intimate environment. And all in all, the 10-member ensemble cast is vocally spotless.