Carmen Jones, Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1943 musical adaptation of Bizet’s classic 1875 opera, received a major revival this week (Tuesday 31 July 2007, previews from 25 July) at the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall as part of its reopening season following a two-year, £111 million refit. Its limited six-week season continues until 2 September 2007.

Transplanting the story from a gypsy to a Cuban setting, Carmen Jones follows a parachute maker who pursues first a soldier and then a boxer with a violent temper. When she rejects the latter, he turns murderous. The revival is directed by Southbank Centre’s artistic director Jude Kelly and produced by Raymond Gubbay. The production continues Gubbay’s tradition of summer musicals at the RFH which, prior to the Hall’s closure, included revivals of Follies and On Your Toes.

Hammerstein wrote the book and dialogue for Carmen Jones, while the music, essentially Bizet’s original score, was re-orchestrated by Robert Russell Bennett. The musical ran for more than 500 performances in New York, where it premiered in 1943, and was made into a 1954 film starring Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge (who became the first African-American woman nominated for an Oscar thanks to her title performance).

Backed by a full symphony orchestra, with performances shared equally between the London Philharmonic and the Philharmonia, the 40-strong cast is led by South African Tsakane Valentine Maswanganyi as Carmen Jones and also features real-life brothers Andrew and Rodney Clarke as Carmen’s love rivals Joe and Husky Miller, as well as Sherry Boone, Philip Browne and The X Factor’s Brend Edwards (See News, 22 Jun 2007).

The “joyful” playing of the 60-strong orchestra wowed first-night critics, even if the musicians’ centre-stage positioning created problems for the production at large, by distracting from the performances and cramping the available stage space for the action. Nevertheless, the performers impressed vocally, by and large, even if some of their acting left critics wanting. Supporting players Sherry Boone and Brenda Edwards were singled out in most reviews for their “show-stopping” numbers.

  • Michael Coveney on (three stars) – “The show, qua show, cannot be compared too favourably with Steven Pimlott’s British premiere at Sheffield in the mid-1980s, or Simon Callow’s terrific Old Vic version in 1991. But, boy, is the singing alright. The South African pop and concert artiste Tsakane Valentine Maswanganyi is a red hot Carmen in a red dress, pulling on her matching red knickers as she appears to sing the ‘Habanera’ (‘Dat’s Love’) and pushing her voice right into the extreme operatic crevices of the role … She is kept up to the mark all the way by the vocal performances of Brenda Edwards as Pearl, beating out that rhythm on a drum with electrifying intensity, and Sherry Boone as Cindy Lou who literally stops the show with ‘My Joe’ in the second act … Andrew Clarke is a striking Joe, mixing his high tenor with a falsetto element (though his voice started to disintegrate later on) while his love rival Husky Miller the boxer (as opposed to Escamillo the toreador) is sung by his baritone blood brother, Rodney Clarke.”

  • Erica Jeal in the Guardian (three stars) – “Tsakane Valentine Maswanganyi's Carmen prowls around with magnetic grace, but vocally comes up short, with an obvious break between her lower voice and a more operatic-sounding top, and an accent that wanders all over the place. Tenor Andrew Clarke sounds plummy as poor naive Joe, but Rodney Clarke booms out a charismatic Husky Miller. The wheeler-dealing quartet do well, but best of all is Sherry Boone as faithful Cindy Lou, who alone sings every word as if she means it … The one moment you know you are in the musical rather than the opera is in ‘Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum’, magnificently belted out here by Brenda Edwards and riotously choreographed by Rafael Bonachela, when Bizet's gypsy dance whirls into a stomping percussion break. Strange that in a performance full of name-that-tunes it should be the nearest thing to a showstopper.”

  • Paul Taylor in the Independent - “It's true that the glory of the first night was the artistry of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. They play the score with joyful attack, and I can see why Jude Kelly has wanted to put them in a central position in a pit in the middle of the stage. But to confine the action to a narrow perimeter is not helpful either to a sense of specific locations or to Rafael Bonachela's sexy, salsa-inflected choreography … As Carmen, the mezzo-soprano Tsakane Valentine Maswanganyi exudes a drop-dead, tantalising seductiveness. All leggy lasciviousness, she struts like an inscrutable law unto herself. Giving the dagger a parodic dummy-run thrust blow to her breast, she even wittily guys the character's clear-eyed fatalism, and she sings with a serene, mocking swoop between head and chest registers.”

  • Nicholas De Jongh in the Evening Standard - “Little sexual electricity or tension flares between Tsakane Valentine Maswanganyi's sensational-looking Carmen and her smitten admirer, Andrew Clarke's stolid Joe, who loses his head, heart and sexual parts to her. The couple boast powerful, versatile voices - Clarke reaching a fine, despairing falsetto - but they never seem harrowed or driven by desire and overwhelming emotion. It was Sherry Boone's Cindy Lou, in her song ‘My Joe’, a lament for the loss of her man, who won cheers of approval last night for communicating an intensity of feeling that was otherwise too often absent … The music remains intact in Hammerstein's remoulding, but the action loses its driving tension and the London Philharmonic or Philharmonia, who will alternate through the run, are riskily placed centre stage and in clear view of the audience rather than below the eye-line … Michael Vale's set, with its balustrades, wooden scaffolding and parked car, could be almost anywhere. The performers and ensemble are confined and restricted in two narrow playing areas - one behind the orchestra, one in front. There is little space for Rafael Bonachela's over-sedate choreography.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) - “Kelly’s revival will be familiar to those who recall Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte in the film … As in the movie, there isn’t one white face on show … Yet Kelly hasn’t made things easier with some odd, awkward staging. Everything occurs on a thin strip of lino-like flooring that runs in front of some amateurish-looking Hispanic arches, then orbits all round what looks like a sunken pond, though a pond that contains not frogs, but much of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. These marooned musicians play beautifully, but they are visually distracting – and so don’t help the actors to generate the necessary intensity … But the performers don’t always help either. Last night it was noticeable that Sherry Boone’s Cindy Lou, as Bizet’s Micaela is now called, got more applause when she melodiously grieved for Andrew Clarke’s Jose, or Joe, than Tsakane Valentine Maswanganyi’s Carmen did for any of the great numbers, finely though she sang them.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “Tsakane Valentine Maswanganyi may not be an easy name to conjure with, but she's pure magic in the role of the temptress who woos dutiful soldier Joe away from his sweetheart only to dump him cruelly for a prize boxer ... Born in the former South African township of Soweto and raised in Limpopo, in the north of the country, Maswanganyi is all fire, all ice as the femme fatale who teases and prevaricates until hopes are shred all around her and her own blood is shed. Although in speech her accent can veer between the States and South Africa, in song - above all, the swoon-making rejig of ‘Habanera’, styled ‘Dat's Love’ - she oozes sultry assurance ... There's outstanding work from other members of the company too, in particular from Sherry Boone as Cindy Lou, who melts hearts with her Act II lament for the man who jilted her - Andrew Clarke's Joe. And the whole troupe almost raise the RFH roof with ‘Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum’ - a Dionysian celebration that's bashed out on every available steel drum. What a passionate, powerful, pulse-quickening night."

    - by Ryan Woods