Carmen La Cubana is a 2016 Cuban makeover of Oscar Hammerstein’s 1943 Carmen Jones, itself an African American reimagining of Bizet’s 1875 opera, in turn based on a metropolitan Frenchman’s torrid historical fantasy of a Spanish Gypsy woman – and honestly, every one of those layers still shows through. Christopher Renshaw’s musical – in Spanish with English surtitles – relocates Hammerstein’s American wartime story to the Cuban revolution of 1958, which serves less as political context than as a backdrop of human turbulence and heightened emotion. Bizet’s famous music is all in there but, in Alex Lacamoire’s orchestrations, it’s mixed into heady cocktails of arias, lilting mambo rhythms, brassy blasts, Afro-Cuban chants and freeform Latin jazz. The dancers, too, chop and change from salsa to split jumps to folk steps in the blink of an eye.
Carmen (Luna Manzanares Nardo) remains the fiery siren of Bizet’s opera, trading recklessly on her erotic capital, and talking a lot dirtier than Bizet would have allowed. Cristina Rodríguez Pino serves as her foil, Marilù: sweet but not hot, and so no competition for the attentions of Saeed Mohamed Valdés’s regular-guy José. There’s a glitzy nightclub scene, some flyby revolutionaries, some wisecracking prostitutes, and a Santería priestess who bangs on about big things: love, death, destiny.
The tone ricochets wildly as the scenes whizz past: intense soliloquy, bug-eyed melodrama, comedy caper. The piece builds well towards its climax, a fight scene between a pro-Cuban and a pro-American boxer, ceding to a rope-ringed battle of the sexes (guess who wins) before the stage floods with crimson flowers and flags – but long before then, the bumpy ride has become its own kind of pleasure.