Congas and mambos are the dynamic devices by which Moises Kaufman’s new Cuban-spiced adaptation of “Carmen” puts its best feet forward. And yet, although this atmospheric version of the Bizet opera is always moving, it never moves.
Not yet, anyway. Kaufman, the director behind such well-known performance pieces as “The Laramie Project” and “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde,” takes on with a committee of collaborators the novel task of transposing the story of “Carmen” to 1958 Havana, on the cusp of revolution. Among the many guises “Carmen” has tried on over the years, the tempestuous title character as a Fidel Castro sympathizer has to be one of the most exotic.
But even though Kaufman and his team dream up an intriguing rationale — and consistently vivacious Latin beat — for their world premiere at Olney Theatre Center, they’ve failed at another vital job: jump-starting “Carmen’s” passionately beating heart. As a result, their effort, a co-production with Kaufman’s Tectonic Theater Project that has been retitled “Carmen: An Afro-Cuban Jazz Musical,” comes across as emotionally flat, and lagging in one of its most important elements. That essential assignment would be instilling a fervent belief in a too-hot-to-handle bond between free-spirited Carmen (Christina Sajous) and her possessive lover, José (Brandon Andrus).
Bizet’s famous score from 141 years ago remains the inspiration for composer Arturo O’Farrill’s work here (with some less-than-stellar lyrics added by Kaufman, Jason Loewith and Christopher Youstra, the latter pair being Olney’s artistic director and “Carmen’s” music director). And the eternally familiar melodies of “Habanera” and the “Toreador Song” still resound on Olney’s stage. The rendition of “Toreador,” in fact, is the centerpiece of the evening’s best sequence. Retitled “Bring the Glory Home,” the song is stirringly delivered by Caesar Samayoa as Camilo, a Cuban prizefighter (taking the place of the original’s Escamillo, the bullfighter).
As choreographed with a bracing electricity by Sergio Trujillo — the production’s most effective contributor — the number entertainingly incorporates allusions to the boxing ring and highlights the show’s muscularity, its most rewarding attribute. Trujillo’s dance ensemble is at all times an asset.
The settings and structure of the musical are for the most part closely patterned after the opera, with Carmen, a worker in a cigar factory, meeting her soldier-man José in a Havana club, conjured with an authentic Caribbean feel by set designer Narelle Sissons. (An excellent 11-member jazz band, weighted toward brass and percussion and conducted by Youstra, is positioned in an upstage corner.) Some conceits, though, are egregiously heavy-handed, such the use of a narrator who, in the manner of Che Guevara in “Evita,” offers superfluous commentary. Of Carmen she not so helpfully declares at the outset: “Characters like her always seem to die in the end.”
If the voices are all up to the score’s demands, the characters, as conjured by Kaufman and his co-book writer, Eduardo Machado, don’t always blend so harmoniously. The biggest problem here may be chemical: The carnivorous Sajous and the impassive Andrus seem romantically mismatched. Sajous’s Carmen is so aggressive and Andrus’s José so bloodless that the magnetism between them never gains force. As a consequence, the violent climax of the piece looks and feels entirely artificial. For this adaptation to truly catch fire, another revolution may have to take place, in the rehearsal room.
“Carmen: An Afro-Cuban Jazz Musical,” music composed and adapted by Arturo O’Farrill, book by Moises Kaufman and Eduardo Machado, lyrics by Kaufman, Jason Loewith and Christopher Youstra. Based on the music of Georges Bizet. Directed by Kaufman. Choreography, Sergio Trujillo; music direction, Youstra; set, Narelle Sissons; costumes, Clint Ramos; lighting, David Lander; sound Robert Kaplowitz, orchestrations, Alejandro Aviles. With George Akram, Sumayya Ali, Michelle Alves, Moses Bernal, Nick Duckart, Briana Carlson-Goodman. About 1 hour 40 minutes. Tickets, $38-$75. Through March 6 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd, Olney. Visit olneytheatre.org or call 301-924-3400.