Carmen La Cubana, Sadler’s Wells, review – A fast-paced, high-energy staging

Created by British director Christopher Renshaw, this new musical reframes the narrative of Bizet’s opera, in an orchestration by Alex Lacamoire, of 'Hamilton' fame

Zo Anderson
Tuesday 07 August 2018 13:38
High energy: 'Carmen la Cubana', at Sadlers Wells
High energy: 'Carmen la Cubana', at Sadlers Wells

Carmen in the Cuban revolution: this new musical reframes the narrative of Bizet’s opera, with new rhythms in an orchestration by Hamilton’s Alex Lacamoire. It’s a fast-paced, high-energy staging, but what stands out is the richness of the performances with strong singing and sinuous dancing from an all-Cuban cast.

Created by British director Christopher Renshaw, Carmen La Cubana follows a template set by Carmen Jones, Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1943 musical update. Though it has a new script, performed in Spanish, the tone recalls classic mid-century Broadway musicals. The show leaps briskly from hit songs to shimmying chorus numbers, the tireless dancers going from cigar-waving factory girls to a fantasy Havana nightclub. Tom Piper’s fine set is a pillared courtyard suggesting decayed grandeur, but adapting quickly for different locations.

Renshaw and co-writers Stephen Clark and Norge Espinosa Mendoza move the action to Cuba in 1958, where hero José serves in Batista’s army while the rebels gather strength in the hills. There’s a new narrator, La Señora, who sets the scene and evokes Cuba’s santería religion – a clunky device, though Albita Rodríguez makes up for it with gutsy singing. There’s also an emphasis on misogynist culture, surely designed to emphasise Carmen’s independence and rebellion, but featuring too many sour jeers at her sexuality.

'Carmen la Cubana' at Sadlers Wells

Luna Manzanares Nardo makes a seductive, powerful Carmen, with a smoky-toned voice and body language that radiates authority. Though the production gives her a prod towards self-sacrifice, her proud bearing underlines this Carmen’s need for freedom, her refusal to give way before José’s possessive violence. Saeed Mohamed Valdés’ sweet-voiced José shows the character’s petulance as well as his ardour.

Played by an onstage band, the musical arrangements – by Lacamoire and Edgar Vero – put new twists on Bizet’s celebrated score. The changes range from a light twist of colour to more radical shifts of rhythm, playful and unexpected. One of the most successful is "The Toreador Song", given fresh swagger. It also benefits from Joaquín García Mejías, who sings with big, golden tone and carries himself with beaming presence, accepting onstage adoration as his natural due.

The large cast move easily from song to movement, erupting into Roclan González Chávez’s explosive choreography. The dances include period social steps and acrobatic moves. They’re a charismatic company, with supporting roles given charm and individuality.

Until 18 August. Box office 020 7863 8000

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