If there’s one thing we learned from Paris Hilton’s visit to Cuba last year, which entailed a selfie with Fidel Castro Diaz-Balart, son of the former head of state, it was that Americans hoping to visit the island “before everything changes” are already too late. Even before normalization began, Cuba had been undergoing rapid economic reforms dubbed “the Sino-Vietnamese model”—maintaining one-party rule while pursuing market liberalization with tourism as its engine of growth. Tourism, Cuba’s only real industry since the government shut down most of its sugar mills a decade ago, has brought back ghosts of the pre-Revolution bad old days, when much of the island was a mafia-run playground for decadent foreigners. The result—shiny new hotels, a dual-currency system, sex tourism, and no-go areas for ordinary Cubans—is a “tourist apartheid.”
So if director/lyricist Moisés Kaufman wanted to cash in on the current spike in interest in Cuba, it was smart to set his new musical not in the present day, when any depiction would soon be dated, but in the 1950s under the Batista dictatorship, when dated depictions are surprisingly relevant again. When Carmen’s suitor invites her to visit Varadero, Cuba’s famous beach resort, she scoffs “they don’t let black people into Varadero.” Today, it’s once more a foreign tourist enclave, and they don’t let Cubans—black, white, or otherwise—into Varadero unless they work there.
Carmen works on many levels but primarily as an engaging adaptation of Bizet’s opera of the same name. Playwrights Kaufman, best known for The Laramie Project, and Cuban-American Eduardo Machado, made just enough changes to wink at fans of the opera while standing on its own. Escamillo, the bullfighter, becomes Camilo, the boxer; the gypsy camp becomes a guerrilla hideout; instead of tarot, Carmen practices Santería. The adaptation even resolves one of the hardest-to-swallow problems of Bizet’s original: a largely sympathetic portrayal of José, the lover-turned-murderer, and the creepy suggestion that Carmen kinda deserved a tragic ending for leading him on. Here, rather than an infatuated naif, José is a seriously scary dude, a soldier in Batista’s army who defects to the rebels with all of his authoritarian tendencies intact. Kaufman’s Carmen also works to flatter Americans’ peculiar sensibilities about Cuba, which haven’t really changed in a hundred years. Thus Batista is bad, but the rebels, Carmen warns us (and José shows us), might be worse. Carmen is a smuggler who helps the rebels, but not for the cause: “I’m a businesswoman,” she declares. “I’m in it for the money.” When one rebel promises her the Revolution will end the racial caste system that makes her a second-class citizen, she shoots back, “Who’s second class? I’m richer than you.”
But you don’t have to be a Cold Warrior to enjoy Carmen, which above all works thanks to superb performances. While Washington National Opera’s production of Bizet’s Carmen last fall brought on a pair of flamenco dancers to distract the audience during set changes, this Carmen brings a bevy of talented dancers to center stage, doing a mix of salsa, tango, cha-cha, and rueda throughout the play, expertly choreographed by Sergio Trujillo. At one point, a male dancer pirouettes on the neck of a rum bottle. Ouch. It’s one of the rare musicals where the ensemble outshines the main cast. And that’s no knock on the cast. Christina Sajous, in the title role, has an appropriately deep register, smoky intonation, and withering side-eye. Caesar Samayoa is also terrific, and underutilized, as the jovial boxer Camilo; he would have been better in the role of José, played by Brandon Andrus, who under-emotes and under-acts as a third part in the love triangle.
Holding it all together is an 11-piece jazz ensemble led by Christopher Youstra, performing Arturo O’Farrill’s Cuban jazz score that riffs on Bizet’s original in a fun way. The themes from the big arias like “Habanera” and the “Toreador Song” are immediately recognizable, but swinging and more upbeat. It’s a credit to a small community theater like Olney to not only stage a new work like Carmen, but invest in the music and dance talent to pull it off properly. It’s a stage show worthy of Meyer Lansky’s Hotel Habana Riviera in all its debauched glory, before Castro came down from the mountains and shut it down.
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. $38–$75. (301) 924-3400. olneytheatre.org.