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A Vegas kind of vixen

June 20, 2007|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

LA JOLLA — Married folks, beware: Carmen's back in town, brazenly trailing her scarf on the floor as she sizes up her next male victim. But you'll never believe what she's managed to do this time. That little hussy has unloaded the only thing worth salvaging in her life, Georges Bizet's irresistible score. OK, maybe the music has become too familiar, piped into tapas restaurants and used to peddle products on TV. But to replace it with a pop song cycle that mixes the schmaltz of Celine Dion with the galaxy-roaming silliness of John Tesh -- well, the tragic heroine has finally gone too far!

"Straight to video" isn't an option for theatrical offerings of dubious merit. But La Jolla Playhouse's newfangled "Carmen," directed by Franco Dragone, one of the masterminds behind Cirque du Soleil, inspires a coinage of its own: "straight to Vegas," which is where this extravagant though eminently disposable musical should be sent. With any luck, it'll end up in the basement of a hotel-casino, where the bells and buzzes of slot machines will drown out its sentimental tidal surges.

If slick packaging and soap-opera accessibility are all you ask for in a musical, then you might think I'm a complete crank for knocking Dragone's flashy production, which had its world premiere Sunday. There's nothing inherently wrong with spectacle, even if the budget (though enviable for most regional theater) allows for only a tiny fraction of the dazzle Cirque du Soleil has made its spare-no-expense specialty. And melodrama, though wrongly derided, can be a real kick when handled with originality.

What's more, this isn't a case of putting a classic on a pedestal. "Carmen," overdone and overripe, is also overdue for renewal.

The problem -- and it's one that could set musical theater back 20 years to the trumped-up blandness of Andrew Lloyd Webber -- lies in the creative team's wallowing in theatrical cliches. With a hyperventilating book by Sarah Miles (who also serves, strange as it sounds, as the show's choreographer), supermarket music by John Ewbank and greeting-card lyrics by AnnMarie Milazzo, this "Carmen" isn't so much a fresh look at the 1845 Prosper Merimee novella that gave rise to one of the most popular operas ever -- it's more of a three-dimensional velvet painting version targeted to the same audience that kept Elton John and Tim Rice's "Aida" afloat for more than four years on Broadway despite the numerous critical pans it received.

There's no point in pressing the case with examples of Milazzo's tone-deaf lyricism. (OK, just one from an early scene setting up Carmen's character: "If I am from the devil's loins / And if I really do steal coins / And I'm a thief and I bring grief / Why are you gawking?") The more troubling concern is the discrepancy between the piece's bumbling conception and its glitzy execution.

Dragone's staging has the nonstop momentum of a music video in which boredom is banished by a visual bombardment that careens from the sexual to the surreal. Amid all the flamenco-inflected dirty dancing, there's plenty to tickle your unconscious (or at least make you scratch your head), including a skeleton, a mysterious veiled woman, a hanged man and a gored bull streaming a red ribbon.

Sultry atmospherics

Christopher Akerlind's dramatic lighting intensifies the sultry atmospherics of Klara Zieglerova's set, with spotlights and enough candles for a Liberace concert piercing the spooky darkness. And Suzy Benzinger's body-clinging costumes lend the shadowy escapades an erotic charge.

As Carmen, Janien Valentine is a petite redhead siren with a rousing voice and enough seductiveness for a whole chorus of Spanish gypsies. She has a pop-star quality that hijacks attention from whatever crowded scene she might be in, and one would like to see what she could do with material that calls for less coarse showmanship.

In the role of Jose, the unhappily wedded sergeant who succumbs to Carmen's tantalizing charms and eventually his own spiraling jealousy, Ryan Silverman makes it possible to relate to his character as both a sensitive heartthrob and a tragic chump.

No one else in the large cast comes into satisfying focus. But all of the performers have a field day with the flourishes of their colorful, carousing parts. Subtlety is out the window as hands are allowed to fly up in paroxysms of whatever emotion is buffeting them at the moment. The fervor at times is as cyclonic as the electronic sound flowing from the orchestra pit. Imagine "West Side Story" transplanted to a 19th century Spain that's a combination of "Zorba" and the Wild West. The very idea is exhausting.

The production, in short, does back-flips to mesmerize. You can call this "Carmen" many things, but boring wouldn't top the list.

Fortunately, English, with its bounteous capacity for nuance, has a word that describes just this kind of sensationalism -- "meretricious," which Webster's handily defines as "exhibiting synthetic or spurious attractions."

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