Review: YoungArts Experimental ‘Carmen’

Written By George Fishman
January 13, 2018 at 8:07 PM

First branded scandalous – a “veritable prostitute” is the lead character amid a band of smugglers, railed critics — Georges Bizet’s 1874 romantic opera Carmen has achieved warhorse status; its stirring melodies are savored by countless opera buffs, (more than 1,000 performances at the Met alone) but they also animated “The Letter L” song on Sesame Street and Beyonce’s Pepsi commercial.


Enter Jay Scheib, celebrated for his experimental approach to theater, dance and film. The Miami-based National YoungArts Foundation, which, since 1981 has provided financial and professional support for the next generation of American art stars, invited him to create an innovative workshop project to stretch and showcase the talents of select YoungArts alumni.


Scheib directs MIT’s Theater Arts program and is noted for dissolving boundaries between genres. He has created original works and radical adaptations of science fiction, modernist film, rock music, plays and operas – sourced from ancient China to Shakespeare to contemporary Russia. “You can read an opera like it was written this morning and find something in it that hasn’t necessarily been exposed,” he said.


Live video projection from multiple cameras is a trademark Scheib technique, and his Carmen activated the entire YoungArts plaza, including live subtitled projection on the former Bacardi tower and a deconstructed stage sheltered by the ornate “jewel box” building. Nearby, from an elevated stage, alumnus, Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner delivered a bravura piano performance, ultimately sharing his platform in the (spoiler alert) blood-smeared finale.


The young actors agilely caressed, confronted and combated one another from bed to bar to dressing room, visible through large windows and on multiple screens. Their resounding, well-inflected voices effectively conveyed intense emotions and character.


Skewered by twisted passions, amid a shifting – and shifty – set of suitors, alumnae India Carney and Asia Stewart displayed generous talent. Carney’s volatile Carmen was the more emotionally varied role – alternatively seductive, taunting, reckless, vicious – and she met the vocal demands with power and finesse. She and the equally accomplished “good girl,” Micaela were well matched by the male cast – toreador Escamillo (D’Angelo Lacy) and soldiers Don José (Aaron Casey) and Lt. Zuniga Wes Goodrich), – whom Carmen whimsically woos and discards.


The “heat” of Miami was amply referenced in juiced-up costumes, sexy moves and saucy language (“you could hold your ass up, so it stops shaking.”), an armed robbery takedown, lively outdoor bar scene, flashes of bling and the cast’s ethnicity, which shaded toward brown.


The production could have devolved to a hot mess. The staging shifted centuries and scenes; actors and videographers dashed around the plaza amid spectators, tables and projection screens. A sequestered conductor, linked by video, challenged her ensemble to create “more melodrama, a faster tempo. Let’s try it again from the moderato.” Stage manager Jane Rosenbaum breathlessly coordinated feeds from multiple camera and audio mixes (French and English), while cueing live action and avoiding collisions.


Remarkably, the project developed with just nine days of rehearsal in New York and Miami. Joined by her YoungArts colleagues, Esther Park, director of campus programming, set a high bar with Sheib’s engagement. During Sunday’s Salon conversation, she elicited participants’ fresh recollections of Saturday’s performance, their earliest inspirations and appreciations of Scheib’s mentorship. In restaging the great classics, he explained his goal is to put them under enough pressure to transform and “betray their secrets.”


That could also be said about the effect on student actors. “Tough love” and “terrifying” were refrains expressed with humor and tenderness. Growing up in Southwest Iowa, Scheib was a junior Olympic high jumper before he had any interest in the arts; “physical intelligence” remains a talent he avidly respects and cultivates.


Candidates between 15-18 years of age in nine creative disciplines may apply for cash awards, master classes and mentoring via the foundation portal. Deadline: October 14.


Carmen wrapped the Out of the Box season, but Pairings at Ted’s, (another among YoungArts’ public exhibitions, talks and performances), provides an intimate supper-club type venue for contemporary cuisine, combined with varied arts programming. On June 24 and 25, alumnus Doug Blush will present his documentary 20 Feet from Stardom, which features the talented singers who work just outside the limelight. It features Judith Hill, a 2002 YoungArts Winner in Voice.


Pairings at Ted’s June 24-25, 7:00 p.m.; 2100 Biscayne Blvd. 305-377-1140; tickets $35-95;


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