Carmen: An Afro-Cuban Jazz Musical worthy of an embargo

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Karla Choko and Caesar Samayoa in CARMEN: AN AFRO-CUBAN JAZZ MUSICAL. (photo: Stan Barouh)

Exactly thirteen hours ago, I fled the mournful jungle which was the middle of Act II Scene I of Carmen: An Afro-Cuban Jazz Musical.

Thirteen hours – and I still have a throbbing headache.

Carmen: An Afro-Cuban Jazz Musical (CAFJAM) made its world premier last night at the usually reliable Olney Theatre. Directed and co-written by Moisés Kaufman and Cuban-American playwright Eduardo Machado (with music composed and adapted by Arturo O’Farrill), this production was staged by Olney in collaboration with Tectonic Theatre Project. As the title suggests, CAFJAM is an adaptation of Bizet’s glorious opera – set against the backdrop of the bloody 1958 Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro.

Cuban Revolution 640px-CDR-pinar-del-rio

On the face of it, this cigar-rolling version sounds like an intriguing idea – and it still could be if the producers would just place the entire affair on the deck of the USS Maine and then blow both it and the immortal battleship all to smithereens.

When a show is this bad, it’s hard to point the blame in any one direction, though a good place to start would be with an adaptation which tries to mellow the mercurial central character, Carmen, and turn her into a sympathetic victim of circumstances.

“My father found out when I was 13 that men liked me, and then he became rich,” Carmen confides to José. Why not just add that her mother would send her to school in a dirty plaid jumper and unbrushed pigtails?

José doesn’t fare any better, with a murderous back story which makes him a less than likeable character. This may be a nod to Prosper Mérimée’s 1845 novella Carmen but will leave casual fans of the opera somewhat perplexed.

Re-imagining Escamillo as a champion boxer does have its comical merits, though the judges would surely have deducted points had they seen this peculiar pugilist.

Carmen (Christina Sajous) taunts the stoic José (Brandon Andrus). (Stan Barouh)
Carmen (Christina Sajous) taunts the stoic José (Brandon Andrus). (Stan Barouh)

Which brings me to the casting…

Rule number one when staging a musical is to find a cast that can actually sing. Or at least, it should be rule number one. Unfortunately, what passes for singing on Broadway today would send yesteryear’s greats on a Gibson-soaked bender.

How can this be?

Oh, that part is easy: we live in a generation where the king has no clothes and everyone thinks that they are a tailor.

For the sake of brevity, I will just mention a few cast members.

Christina Sajous as Carmen spent the entire evening under pitched, over-miked and in search of that elusive melody. Such a horrible sound. At points, she even turned the mezzo part into a bass. Who cast this actress in the lead? Are they completely tone deaf??? We’re coming up now on fourteen hours since I left the theatre, and my head still aches.

Brandon Andrus was an improvement over Sajous on the musical side (anyone would be), but his acting in the part of José was rather lifeless, one dimensional and almost as flat as Sajous’ singing. The best moment between the two leads was the scene where Carmen beguiles José with a seguidilla. At one point, he says, “You should stop singing.”

I wanted to stand up and cheer.

Did I mention this show goes on, uninterrupted, for almost two excruciating hours?

The ensemble of CARMEN: AN AFRO-CUBAN JAZZ MUSICAL directed by Moisés Kaufman, choreography by Sergio Trujillo (photo: Stan Barouh)
Skizzo Arnedillo leads the ensemble of CARMEN: AN AFRO-CUBAN JAZZ MUSICAL. (photo: Stan Barouh)

Caesar Samayoa appeared to be having a very good time portraying the boxer Camillo, though watching his shadow-boxing moves, I remain convinced Teófilo Stevenson had nothing to fear. Calvin McCullough (Diego) somewhat resembles Seth Rogen in his features and his deportment on stage – not that this is a bad thing, but given the Latin setting it was a bit distracting. Also distracting was Michelle Alves’ (Fina) affected “Cooban” accent, which cha-chaed throughout the entire show between Barcelona and Brooklyn.

The high point of the evening was accidentally supplied by ensemble player Skizzo Arnedillo.

As Arnedillo came to a sudden stop on his knees during one of the more sprightly dance numbers, his toupee continued to skip right across the stage and landed somewhere in the first row. Then, in the moment this reporter will long recall from this otherwise dismal show, Arnedillo casually reached up to check his crown; confused no doubt by an unexpected draft. It was a priceless moment and to his credit the actor never broke character. Hats off to Arnedillo. This is the one part of the show they really need to keep in.

OK – I still have a headache, and I haven’t even touched on the butt grinding choreography, the static staging or the Message to Garcia. Check out this show if you want an inkling of what’s going on at Guantanamo Bay. But don’t be surprised in the end if you find yourself on a leaky raft frantically rowing for the Florida Keys.

* * * * *

Carmen: An Afro-Cuban Jazz Musical runs now through March 6 at Olney Theatre Center. Running time is an ear- bleeding 110 minutes with no easy escape. Olney Theatre Center is located at 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road in Olney, Maryland. Tickets, if you dare, and other information, may be found by visiting Olney Theatre online.

2 thoughts on “Carmen: An Afro-Cuban Jazz Musical worthy of an embargo

  • February 15, 2016 at 7:49 PM

    Ha! A bit bitter Anthony?

  • February 15, 2016 at 5:29 AM

    Wow. Somebody’s having a bad week, and they sure aren’t at the Olney Theatre.

    I saw (apparently, based on the timing of this review) the exact same performance, and I’ve now read this review. For clarity’s sake: I’ve been a full time professional musician for 32 years. And I’m quite positive that whatever was rattling around in Tony Hayes’ aching head on Saturday was pretty loose when he got there.

    “Tone-deaf” producers? “Under-pitched?” Bad news: pitch isn’t subjective, and Hayes must have tin ears. I was there, and Sajous’ sound and tonal approach is Sonny Rollins compared to whatever Kenny G is surely Hayes’ pet cat of the day. Sajous’ is a big voice that she threw against the wall again and again with variety, emotion and abandon; pitch center genre-correct dead on at all times.

    In Hayes’ overall defense, jazz and Latin music interpretation (which Sajous apparently has spent time in) calls for a profoundly different (performance AND listening) approach than one might find in the typical white-bread Kristin Chenoweth soup-of-the-day. Certainly, authentic salsa/Afro-Cuban music may not be for everyone! Some people go to a Paquito D’Rivera concert and are delighted; others walk out holding their ears and complaining about the dearth of Glann Miller songs. To each his/her own, eh?

    Surely Hayes is being honest with this review, and yet it is hard having seen the same performance he did and not conclude that he simply is not a fan of jazz or Cuban music. To my ears, Arturo O’Farrill’s score represents a unique, long-form rework of Bizet’s work that almost seems more at home in the Afro-Cuban style than the original operatic form (!). That this doesn’t even rate a mere mention in Hayes’ review reveals a telling shallowness of perspective.


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