Home / Theater Review: A New Carmen Musical at the La Jolla Playhouse

Theater Review: A New Carmen Musical at the La Jolla Playhouse

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By merging electronica, exotica, and, for a show in Las Vegas, erotica with tried and true circus acrobatics, French Canada’s Cirque d’ Soleil franchise conquered America in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Carmen, a new musical theater piece directed by one of Cirque’s creative talents, promises in its La Jolla Playhouse premiere (through July 22 in the Mandell Weiss Theatre) to apply some of that magic to Prosper Mérimée’s 1845 novella of the seductive Gypsy woman. Carmen's life and love can be drawn by adaptors to make her a mere libertine or a ground-breaking liberator. This helped inspire numerous interpretations from the immortal (Bizet's opera) to the inane (an ice skating show), and vehicle's like Beyonce's 2001 Hip Hopera in between.

Anyone fearing that visual pyrotechnics and bicycle-riding contortionists will
overshadow Mérimée’s story in La Jolla needn’t worry. That actually would be a nice
problem to have. Instead, the visuals, while always appealing, thanks primarily to
Christopher Akerlind’s evocative lighting design, are not nearly enough to compensate
for a night of prosaic dialogue, uninspired lyrics, and simplistic music.

In fact, the show sadly falls between the genres of musical theater and high-energy Cirque entertainments. One wonders if the creators – Sarah Miles (book and choreography), composer John Ewbank, lyricist AnnMarie Milazzo, and director Franco Dragone – arrived at pre-production with designs for a show that would be filled with the kind of mysterious imagery and effects that bookend the show. Perhaps regional theater realities pruned a lot of great ideas. What remains is left wanting the very element that was never essential to Cirque success: inspired language.

Set in Spain, the story’s characters are in three basic groups – soldiers, local women, and the men and women of the gypsy camp. Don José Narvarro (Ryan Silverman) is a happily married man off to become a career soldier. He moves through the ranks exhibiting a gentle goodness that does not compromise his strengths as a leader and fighter. Despite being surrounded by seductive townswomen – and there is a visual feast of physical beauty on stage – José can only think of his wife. Until he encounters Carmen (Janien Valentin). Then he cannot seem to remember her. The room-clearing power of obsessive love is what drives José, the story, and the lingering appeal of this tale 160 years after it was written. Passion will lead to fleeting moments of joy for Jose, but more often to random bouts of violence, jealousy, betrayal, and murder.

Ms. Valentin and Mr. Silverman look and sound great. Their voices are powerful and supple enough to occasionally transcend the mundanity of their songs. But their acting is not able to elevate the dialogue to drama.

There are highlights. José leads the arrested Carmen by rope until she turns the tether into a seduction cord and a wild Apache dance ensues that turns the table on who is bound and who remains untied. Neal Benarai, as Zuniga, delivers a rock opera moment in “Touch the Sun,” a spirited performance and tune that evokes Superstar’s “Damned for All Time.” And the chorus numbers are occasionally fiery enough to entertain. But for most of the evening the show never rises above the heat and depth of an Ann-Margret routine on The Ed Sullivan Show.

It’s hard to fathom this vessel being made see-worthy, with the book, lyrics, and music as intrinsically dull as they are. It may have been built for Broadway, but it may go direct to Vegas, where a trimmed down 90-minute version, with showgirls and boys pounding out dramatic flamenco, will surely help a late-night house of out-of-towners forget their own encounters with seductive fates at the gaming tables.

CREDITS  book by Sarah Miles, music by John Ewbank, lyrics by AnnMarie Milazzo, directed by Franco Dragone PRODUCTION  Klara Zieglerova, set; Suzy Benzinger, costumes; Christopher Akerlind, lights; Francois Bergeron, sound; Sarah Miles, choreography; Omayra Amaya, Flamenco specialist; Roque Banos, Spanish Music Consultant, Phyllis Schray, Justin Mabardi, Jenny Slattery, stage management. WITH Neal Benari, Genson Blimline, Iresol Cardona, Gabriel Croom, Noemi Del Rio,Maria Eberline, Tony Falcon, Jacqui Graziano, Shannon Lewis, Jorge E. Maldonado, Michelle Marmolejo, Rocio Ponce, Caesar Samayoa, Marcos Santana, Carlos Sierra-Lopez, Ryan Silverman, Shelley Thomas, Janien Valentine, Victor Wallace, Natalia Zisa

La Jolla Playhouse June 5-July 22, 2007 (Opened 6/17, Rev. 6/20)  World Premiere

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