The Murderers’ Row of talent lined up for the new “Carmen: An Afro-Cuban Jazz Musical” makes it one of the most anticipated premieres of D.C.’s theater season. Moisés Kaufman (“The Laramie Project”) is writing and directing. Afro-Cuban jazz pianist and composer Arturo O’Farrill is reworking Bizet’s popular opera. Broadway’s Sergio Trujillo (“Jersey Boys,” “Memphis”) is the choreographer. And . . .
Never mind. It’s at the Olney Theatre Center, way out in the Montgomery County suburbs. If you’re in D.C. or Northern Virginia, you’re just not going to go.
“We hate that,” says Olney artistic director Jason Loewith.
That’s why Loewith is increasingly making serious theatergoers an offer they can’t refuse. In 2014, Andrew Hinderaker’s “Colossal,” an unlikely dramatic mashup of football and dance, was one of the most startlingly original shows anywhere in greater Washington. The same year, Lauren Gunderson’s Steinberg Prize-winning “I and You” landed the company on the cover of American Theatre magazine. Last fall’s drama “Bad Dog” was one of the breakout hits of the Women’s Voices Theatre Festival.
Big musicals have gotten bigger since Loewith arrived three years ago. The improvements started with a persuasively danced and aggressively designed “A Chorus Line” and continued through a slate last year that included “The Producers” and concluded with a jubilant “Guys and Dolls.” Partnering with Kaufman and company for this “Carmen” is a particular triumph, though, something that speaks to a creative revitalization and a major rebranding for an organization that was recently nearly crippled by debt.
“I think we’re turning around,” says managing director Debbie Ellinghaus, who has been on the job only a year and a half. “We’re not turned around yet.”
Ellinghaus and Loewith believe in going big, and “Carmen” — a co-production with Kaufman’s Tectonic Theater Project, set in 1958 Havana — is a case in point. The show features a cast of 18, plus 11 musicians for the brassy, percussive jazz sound that O’Farrill is fusing with Bizet’s famous melodies. Olney has never developed a big new musical like this before, and the project’s budget, near a half-million dollars (still substantially less than a troupe such as Arena earmarks for its musicals), exceeds anything the troupe has done by 20 percent.
Loewith gets that plenty of outfits Olney’s size can produce the staples he produces, from “Guys and Dolls” to Noel Coward’s “Hay Fever” and Arthur Miller’s “The Price.” “But not everybody can do ‘I and You’ or ‘Colossal,’ ” Loewith says. “Not everybody can do ‘Carmen, An Afro-Cuban Jazz Musical.’ That’s going to set us apart.”
The Venezuelan-born, New York-based Kaufman, whose works include “Gross Indecency” and “33 Variations,” didn’t even know where Olney was when he began talking with his longtime friend Loewith about working together.
“There’s something very lovely about walking outside and having the woods,” Kaufman says during a break in rehearsals. “And this is an entirely new piece, so it feels like a wonderful place to develop new work. There are very few distractions. I think the title of your piece should be ‘Moisés Kaufman Becomes a Monk.’ ”
The notion for this “Carmen” came as Kaufman brainstormed with O’Farrill, whose “Cuba: The Conversation Continues” was recorded in Havana almost exactly as President Obama announced that the United States would at last normalize relations with its island neighbor. Loewith jumped at the opportunity to premiere the show.
The transformation of the oft-adapted opera about a fiery gypsy (who is frequently seen as an untameable temptress) is not only musical, but political, too. Kaufman and his co-writer Eduardo Machado — a Cuban playwright long based in the United States — chose 1958 for its obvious combustibility as the Batista regime resisted Fidel Castro’s eventual takeover. They are adding race to the mix by making Carmen black.
“The politics in the room are flying,” says Loewith, who is doubling as the production’s dramaturge. “We come across a line that doesn’t make sense, and Eduardo gives us a lecture on Cuban history at that particular moment.”
“She is a role model for revolutionary ideology,” O’Farrill says of the title character.
O’Farrill knows Cuba well; Kaufman has been three times recently, and Loewith went last year. Of the Castro era, Kaufman says, “It’s a socioeconomic experiment that couldn’t have happened anywhere except on an island separated from the rest of the world. And Americans for the longest time thought that Cuba was their brothel. So how do you navigate that?”
O’Farrill uses the word “lovers” when he notes how close the United States and Cuba were before the decades of isolation and sanctions. “That’s when the anger really flies,” he says.
Musically, though, the composer is finding affinities between deploying clave — the dominant rhythmic pattern of Cuban music — and the 19th-century opera about desire and defiance, loyalty and liberty, penned by a Frenchman who himself was influenced by Spanish and African melodies.
“It’s brilliant fun,” O’Farrill says, “because so much of Bizet’s music lends itself to experimentation.”
That the Olney is incubating such a heady project is not entirely a surprise if you know Loewith’s background. He co-wrote “Adding Machine: The Musical,” which won several off-Broadway awards in 2008, ran Chicago’s Next Theater Company from 2002 to 2008 (it shuttered in 2014), and came to the Olney after serving as executive director of the National New Play Network.
Still, the aggressiveness is notable because the Olney was saddled with more than $6 million in debt when Loewith took over, yet the shows — including big-cast dramas such as “Colossal” and “Bad Dog” — look more lavish than ever.
The long-term debt for the troupe, which is operating on a budget of just under $6 million this season, is now down to $4.8 million. Attendance is up, fundraising has been broadened, and donations are increasing from individuals and foundations, which Loewith says are often excited about supporting artistic risks in ways that theater boards may not always understand. A substantial foundation gift, for instance, is helping underwrite “Carmen,” and Loewith says there is no “enhancement” money from commercial producers who may want a say in the show’s future. Meanwhile, reversing a tradition of panicked cutbacks to shows’ budgets, production standards have been pumped up to make the case the company is worth an investment.
“The first thing you have to do is you have to matter,” Ellinghaus says of wooing major donors. “Artistically, I think Jason’s proven himself tenfold. The staff have proven themselves.”
The staff has been expanded, starting with the hiring of Christopher Youstra as associate artistic director and director of music theater. This season the company is offering 10 shows — 11, if you count this summer’s two-show Gilbert and Sullivan rep from the Chicago troupe The Hypocrites — on the 429-seat mainstage that opened in 2005 and in the small Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, built in 1999. That’s a notable boost from the seven-show seasons just before Loewith arrived.
“Guys and Dolls” was a hit and sold 20,000 tickets even though Loewith never banked on drawing audiences from downtown D.C. or Northern Virginia, where the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “Kiss Me, Kate” and Signature Theatre’s “West Side Story” were easily accessible. The attendance goals for tough plays in the Lab are much smaller, of course. So with the parking lot often overflowing anyway, thanks to tentpole titles such as “Dial ‘M’ for Murder” and “Evita” (both due soon), does the Olney even need the downtown arts crowd?
“It’s a good question,” Ellinghaus says. “We want that audience. It puts us in the community we are part of. At the same time, the way this area has grown, this isn’t just horse country anymore. This is a high net worth, highly educated, growing community.”
Presenting hip outfits such as New York’s Bedlam Theatre (which did both “Hamlet” and “St. Joan” with only four actors) and Chicago’s The Hypocrites (bringing a frisky Gilbert and Sullivan rep this summer) typifies the kind of partnerships Loewith says will reposition his theater among national counterparts. He is building bridges here, as well, as the company becomes known for worthwhile new scripts and producing to a high level. Washington favorite Holly Twyford made her first appearance with the company starring in “Bad Dog,” suggesting a new interest from top artists. More casting coups and notable co-productions are in the works (but currently hush-hush) when the company announces its new season next month.
Kaufman isn’t coy about his ambitions for “Carmen”; he expects another regional production after this, and then some kind of landing in New York.
“I have no idea if this production is going to be critically successful,” Loewith says. “I know this is not going to be the final stop on its journey. But I think it’s going to say that Olney Theatre is trying to play with the big boys.”
Carmen: An Afro-Cuban Jazz Musical book by Moisés Kaufman and Eduardo Machado; lyrics by Moisés Kaufman; music by Arturo O’Farrill, based on the music of Georges Bizet. Tickets: $38-$75. Through March 6 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd. Call 301-924-3400 or visit olneytheatre.org.