If there’s one show that suits this current heatwave we’re experiencing, it’s Carmen La Cubana.
Based on Oscar Hammerstein’s 1943 musical Carmen Jones (itself based on Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera Carmen), his subtitled production, performed entirely in Spanish, takes us to the heady, steamy days of 1958 Cuba. Revolution is coming, and Carmen is on the prowl. This femme fatale makes it clear from the off that she is not to be trifled with, but that doesn’t stop every single man she encounters from trying.
The all-Cuban cast, led charismatically by Luna Manzanares Nardo as Carmen, is nothing short of incredible. Nardo has the audience hanging off every word, seducing us along with her many admirers within the show, all whilst being vocally stunning. Simply put, she has the range.
Saeed Mohamed Valdés is equally impressive as her soldier lover José, who strays from his sweet country love Marilu to accompany Carmen to the more worldly and dangerous Havana. His voice is one of the most stirring things in this production, and adds yet more drama to his impassioned final scenes with Carmen.
The music, performed by a 14-strong band of Cuban musicians, is effervescent, mixing opera with salsa, mambo, rumba and cha-cha-cha, and is beautifully heard in the Sadler’s Wells auditorium. The new orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire, the Cuban-American orchestrator of In the Heights and Hamilton, add lively flair to the well-known score (you might recognise the Toreador Song, for one) and are yet another example of just how lucky musical theatre is to have him.
The music has layers upon layers, and one could likely hear it several times over and still hear something fresh in it. What’s more is that it really evokes the Cuba that director Christopher Renshaw envisioned for this piece – romantic, vibrant but nonetheless tinged with something a little more ominous.
The choreography by Roclan González Chávez, too, is extraordinary in its detail and storytelling, as well as its spectacle, and the cast performs every move with fluid aplomb. The best moments of the show are when the entire ensemble is on stage, because here, their immense energy is infectious. Everyone shines.
This show will not leave you emotionally taxed in the same way that something like Les Mis might, but you will come out feeling fuller than when you went in. Carmen La Cubana is a glorious exhibition of Cuban brilliance and talent, and it is worth seeing for that alone. If you don’t come out feeling even a little envious of the talented cast, you haven’t been watching. They are awesome in every sense.
To paraphrase Shakespeare, in these hot days is the mad blood stirring, and nowhere more so than in Sadler’s Wells whilst Carmen is in residence.
Reviewed by Laura Stanley
Photo: Nilz Boehme