Fredericka Meek and Chauncey Packer | Credit: Zach Mendez

Ensemble Theatre Company begins their 2022-23 season with a dramatic swell of music and a classic story of passion and betrayal with Carmen Jones, Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1940s reconceptualization of Bizet’s renowned opera, Carmen. Like the opera, Carmen Jones (directed by Jonathan Fox) is the story of an enticing woman who seduces a soldier, then leaves him for a more extravagant life with an athlete/entertainer.

Fredericka Meek and Troy D. Wallace | Credit: Zach Mendez

Musically speaking, Bizet’s powerful melodies drive the emotionality of this piece. The vocals are rich and sustaining, especially Joe’s (Chauncey Packer) powerful, final moments of crazed obsession with his wayward lover. Hammerstein’s new lyrics, however, are stagnant, and the songs serve more as choreographed theatrical tableaus than opportunities to advance the story. The swift movement from song to song (and tableau to tableau) unfastens the story from emotional realism, losing some power of the narrative and connection between audience and characters. Carmen Jones is somewhat of an amalgamation between opera and musical — and the melodrama of Carmen’s journey feels more at home in an operatic setting where actions and emotions are exaggerated.

The story is updated, but only on face value (it’s set in the 1940s). Costumes and hair are very “American home front,” but thematic elements have not been refined for a newer generation of viewers. An important component of the story is the exploration of sexual power, but the production is delivered with very little punctuation on the importance of gender politics. 

Performances, however, are handled well; Carmen (Fredericka Meek) is saucy and confident, and Joe is impressionable. Husky Miller (Troy D. Wallace), the boxer, is suave and cool until he’s provoked to hot-headed pugilism. Ultimately, I love musicals, and Carmen Jones is an attractive and engaging piece of performance art that highlights some excellent voices and gives new life to Bizet’s music, which is the true star of this production.

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