If you’ve ever been to Cuba, you may have visited La Guarida, one of Havana’s most famous paladar restaurants and which attained mythical status after Beyoncé sashayed in and out of it with Jay Z. Its gloriously-faded staircase is the set design inspiration for the sizzling new musical, Carmen La Cubana, which opened at Sadler’s Wells last night. I don’t know what Bizet would make of this Latin American adaptation of his gypsy opera, but it’s still gutsy and sexy, with muchísimo drama and plenty of hip movements that might even make Queen Bey wince.
And like a Cuban cigar, it’s 100% homegrown. Seasoned director Christopher Renshaw spent several months in the country scouting for the all-Cuban cast. The band of 14 Cuban musicians, with their congas, güiros, marcas and timbales, accompanies a musical score which was given a fiery facelift by American-Cuban Musical Director, Alex Lacamoire (of Hamilton fame). The choreography, which is a joy to watch (I only wish there had been more), is by Roclan González Chávez, who gave me a little backstage cha cha lesson before the premiere. But I’m not Cuban and I can’t dance, so sadly, I didn’t make the cut.
The story of the ill-fated gypsy is credited to the French writer Prosper Mérimée and made famous by Bizet, although its success was posthumous. But it’s the sultry, sweaty, Americanised Carmen Jones by Oscar Hammerstein that Renshaw turned to for his Cuban-flavoured production. Dorothy Dandridge, the first black actress to be nominated for an Oscar and star of the film, had a profound effect on Renshaw. He also had a eureka moment during a visit to Cuba and to a Santería party (Santería is an Afro-Caribbean religion with Catholic undertones). A trance-like old lady sealed his fate when she told him she could see things in his future. Renshaw was under the spell of Cuba.
And so, this Carmen, which is entirely in Spanish (with surtitles), is set in 1958, on the eve of the Cuban Revolution. Forget cigarette factories, toreadors, manzanilla and flamenco. This is the land of cigars, boxers, mojitos and salsa. There’s a new character, the clairvoyant and narrator, La Señora, perhaps influenced by Renshaw’s own Santería soothsayer.
Renshaw’s tenure in the steamy Latin American outpost was life-changing. He discovered a melting-pot of culture, passion, dreams and of spirit. These all mesh into his leading lady, Luna Manzanares Nardo, an intoxicating Latina version of Catherine Zeta Jones, albeit with a much better voice.
I willed Carmen’s lover, José, who was as wet as any Disney Prince, to go home to his sick mother throughout the evening, but he persisted through to the bitter end. Albita Rodríguez, as La Señora, stole the show, looking a tad Carmen Miranda-esque (minus the fruit). She gave us Cuba with a capital ‘C’ as did the showstopping dancers.
Carmen La Cubana comes with an extra dollop of hot sauce. There isn’t a castanet or a bull fighter in sight, but I like to think Bizet would have enjoyed the extra spice. I for one, will be dusting off my old Carmen skirt.
Carmen La Cubana was on at Sadler’s Wells in 2018. More information on current productions here.