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A CurtainUp Review
Caroline, Or Change
By Elyse Sommer
--- The Original Review
As always, and despite Mr. Kushner's publicly stated comment that he aims to entertain, a Kushner libretto is more likely to be a contemplation of historic events than a light romp. The contemplative challenge begins with the title which points to a heroine named Caroline. Being Tony Kushner's Caroline (Tonya Pinkins), she is neither your traditional heroine or obsequious Southern "mammy" but a gruff, close-minded maid in Kushner's own native Lake Charles, Louisiana during the civil rights days of the early 1960s. Though Caroline gets top title billing, she's one figure in a large canvas that includes her children, her best friend, the family she works for -- not to mention appearances from The Moon (Adriane Lenox evoking memories of the Angel in Angels In America) and some other zestfully anthropomorphic characters to give a new twist to the much documented civil rights era.
That brings us to the "or Change " alternative title. It is change, and the sorrows, hopes and fears that accompany it, that encapsulate the playwright's intent. As with Edward Albee's The Goat or Who Is Sylvia, the two-in-one title is all of a piece. This is Caroline's story, her dissatisfaction with life coupled with her resistance to and discomfort with change and her very timid first step towards accepting it. This is a story about changes which are more to be borne than welcomed -- changes wrought by the death of a mother and wife, a bad relationship, or admired leaders like John F. Kennedy and Medgar Evers who were killed during the November through December 1963 period during which Caroline, or Change takes place.
The libretto is quite straightforward in detailing the interlinked stories of the Thibodeaux and Gellman families. As outsiders are bringing new ideas to the South, Rose Stopnick Gellman (Veanne Cox) has married her dead best friend's grief-stricken husband (David Constabile). Rose tries desperately to blend her Eastern liberalism with her new life, but her well-intentioned dual attempt to give Caroline some extra money and a fiscal responsibility lesson to her 8-year-old stepson (Harrison Chad) explode into a painful rift between him and the housekeeper he adores. The rift is triggered by mislaid small change and one twenty dollar bill. If this sounds rather trivial and mundane, Kushner adroitly uses this to show money to be the villain of the piece, the barrier that precludes real friendship between people whose connection to each other is a paycheck (the meagerness of that paycheck dictated by racial discrimination). The parallels between the changes in the lives of the two families and the larger events in the town and the rest of the country are drawn with wit and admirable restraint from sermonizing.
The more surreal characters are not uniformly successful, but neither are they the stuff of scratch-your-head symbolism. A Supreme-like trio (Tracy Nicole Chapman, Marva Hicks and Ramona Keller) quite obviously represents the radio that is Caroline's companion in the basement laundry of the Gellman house. The woman and man (Capathia Jenkins and Chuck Cooper) popping up behind the washer and drier clearly give human faces and voices to the repetitive hum and whirl of Caroline's confined and impoverished world. It also doesn't take a symbol book to recognize Nature as the ever-present agent of change in Adriane Lenox's silvery-voiced Moon and the bus (the vivid Chuck Cooper again) as typifying the painfully slow and inadequate transportation available to the town's black population as well as the messenger announcing Kennedy's assassination. The program lists another animated character, a Confederate Statue (a second role for Reathel Bean who now appears only as Grandpa Gellman). This seems like a wise excision since dramatizing the toppling of that statue might have been an excess of the anthropomorphic conceit. With images of Saddam Hussein's statue being pulled off its pedestal in Baghdad still fresh in most people's minds, it might also have seemed like a self-conscious effort to have art imitate life.
Jeanine Tesori has written a score that is custom-made for each of the more than a dozen characters That means blues and gospel for Tonya Pinkins and Capathia Jenkins, catchy R&B for the trio of chorines, and even a touch of Klezmer for the Hanukkah party that, after too leisurely paced and internalized first act, sends the show into high gear at the top of the second, especially when it turns into a rousing upstairs/downstairs clash between Rose's visiting father (Larry Keith), a staunch Eastern liberal and Caroline's daughter Emmie (Anika Noni Rose). In keeping with the sung-through, operatic format, the program itemizes scenes but omits a song list.
Tonya Pinkins' has the voice to make Tesori's music soar, as do Capatha Jenkins, Chuck Cooper and the Radio chorines. Pinkins also rates a big hand for the way she captures the beaten-down bitterness of a good woman for whom good things have failed to materialize. Anika Noni Rose is a standout as her daughter. Applause is also due to young Harrison Chad as the boy made even more unhappy over his mother's death when his father follows the Jewish tradition of a widower by marrying his wife's sister or best friend. (According to interviews with the Kushner, Noah is a blend of him and his brother. Their mother, like Noah's, was a musician, and while she lived to see Angels In America, she also died of lung cancer).
Veanne Cox, though not likely to become a musical diva any time soon, is excellent, giving a poignant, more low-key than usual portrayal of Rose. Larry Keith maintains his solid performance record as her father. Reathel Bean and Alice Playten have little to do as the Gellman grandparents who still seem to be warning their dead daughter about the dire consequences of heavy smoking.
Thanks to Rick Basset, Joseph Joubert and Buryl Red's subtle orchestration, even the actors who don't have big belting voices are always comprehensible. Unlike operas, which even in English often require super titles, and the over-amplified, screamed lyrics of most Broadway musicals, every word here can be understood.
Ricardo Hernández's colorful roll-out sets enable the action to segue between Caroline's front stoop, the Gellman living room, the below-ground laundry, a church and a Lake Charles bus stop -- sometimes tightly focusing on one scene as if this were a much smaller stage, at other times expanding the view to simultaneously show two locations. Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer's lighting enhances the set's effectiveness. In keeping with the basic simplicity of the staging, Paul Tazwell has stuck pretty much to one apt costume for each player-- even the peppy Radio trio never changes its look-alike glittery gowns.
Seeing Caroline, or Change and the Broadway revival of Wonderful Town on succeeding evenings, made for its own lesson in change -- the change, for better or worse, in the contemporary musical theater. Wonderful Town represents the old-style musical at its light-hearted and most melody and dance driven best. Caroline, or Change represents the more cerebral new musical theater though it too has a warm and nostalgic Member of the Wedding flavor. True there's no catchy ode to Lake Charles to rival Wonderful Town's "Ohio", but then this isn't an instant hum-hit kind of show but a bittersweet musical lesson in living with ever present loss and gradual change. As Caroline, on returning to the basement laundry puts it, she and Noah "weren't never friends" and the sorrow that's deep inside both of them "will never go away." Instead they'll "learn how to lose things."
Postcript: The musical played at the Public's Newman Theatre, at 425 Lafayette Street from 10/28/03 to 2/01/04, the closing represents a second extension. The official opening was11/30/03 and my original review was based on the 11/25/03 press performance. Production details now at the top of the page with my take on the Broadway transfer. Elyse Sommer.
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide