Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Caroline or Change"

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note: entire contents copyright 2006 by Carl A. Rossi


book and lyrics by Tony Kushner
music by Jeanine Tesori
directed by Paul Daigneault
musical direction by José Delgado
choreographed by Jackie Davis

Caroline Thibodeaux … Jacqui Parker
The Washing Machine … A’lisa D. Miles
The Radio … Emilie Battle; Nikki Stephenson; Anich D’Jae Wright
Noah Gellman … Jacob Brandt
The Dryer … Brian Richard Robinson
Rose Stopnick Gellman … Sarah Corey
Grandma Gellman … Dorothy Santos
Grandpa Gellman … Dick Santos
Stuart Gellman … Michael Mendiola
Dotty Moffett … Merle Perkins
The Moon … A’lisa D. Miles
The Bus … Brian Richard Robinson
Emmie Thibodeaux … Shavanna Calder
Jackie Thibodeaux … Breanna Bradlee
Joe Thibodeaux … Dominic Gates
Mr. Stopnick … Sean McGuirk


Conductor; Piano … José Delgado
2nd Keyboard … Brent Kincaid
1st Reed … Alejandro Oscar
2nd Reed … Anthony Blackmon
Guitar … George Leonard
Bass … Bjarki Meitil
Drums; Percussion … Don Holm

Tony Kushner’s CAROLINE OR CHANGE, at the SpeakEasy Stage, is his most accessible work thus far, a play that is mostly sung or declaimed, throughout: Caroline, an embittered black woman working as a maid in 1963 Louisiana, feels the social winds of change a-blowing yet cannot make herself over, having lived so long in segregation’s shadow; her various struggles are semi-narrated by Noah Gellman, the young son of Caroline’s employers, presumably the playwright as a child. Mr. Kushner concludes with Caroline accepting her lot while her three children face the future, proud and free and shining with hope --- and in the Jim Crow South (but, to paraphrase Mr. Wilde, that is the nature of musicals). CAROLINE suffers from Mr. Kushner’s usual overloading with several plot-threads all demanding equal time and minor characters taking center stage, often leaving Caroline in the basement with her singing Washer, Dryer and Radio, and Noah sulking in his bedroom. Like so many of today’s pop- or rock-operas, CAROLINE OR CHANGE works best when Jeanine Tesori’s music becomes an extension of the dialogue or when a well-placed spoken word brings everything back down to earth --- as a tunesmith, however, Ms. Tesori noodles as much as Noah’s father does on his clarinet. (The overworked ensembles create aural chaos, made worse by the overloud SpeakEasy orchestra.)

Jacqui Parker is the SpeakEasy’s Caroline. Ms. Parker is at her best when she is challenged as in HAYMARKET and, unforgettably, ASCENSION where a searing tragedienne suddenly sprang out of nowhere; otherwise, she glows in her familiar cool, blue flame. CROWNS introduced Ms. Parker’s vocal talents; CAROLINE OR CHANGE opens them up for full display --- Ms. Parker is first heard humming, in the dark, and the sense of a Presence is thrilling, once visible, Ms. Parker’s declamation of the word “Louisiana” speaks volumes of weary oppression with the last vowel cut off with a glottal stop; as her performance continued, however, I realized that Ms. Parker’s Caroline would go no farther than being a deep, troubled pool with widening rings whereas the role suggests a woman poisoning herself with rage, leading to her eleventh-hour spot, “Lot’s Wife”, in which she erupts for the first and last time. Ms. Parker carefully picks her way through this crucial number (hers is not a rich, wailing instrument) but that should not undermine the rest of her achievement; a Mama Rose who delivers all of the goods except for “Rose’s Turn” can still command respect --- likewise Ms. Parker’s Caroline.

The rest of the ensemble are more ideal, vocally and temperament-wise. The two pleasant surprises are Merle Perkins as Dotty, Caroline’s best friend, and Sarah Corey as Noah’s well-meaning stepmother. I have heard Ms. Perkins ring hollow when singing in her upper register; Dotty lies in mid-range, freeing Ms. Perkins to beautifully flesh out this woman who is cautiously moving ahead while still turning a respectful cheek. Twice I have seen Ms. Corey do camp turns; here, she displays a fine singing-acting technique, alert to every nuance and shading in this busy score --- may she continue in that direction even if it means missing out on instant diva-dom. Jacob Brandt does some admirable Sprechstimme as Noah, and it was good to hear Brian Richard Robinson’s soaring baritone, again, having missed it these past few seasons; Mr. Robinson’s flamboyant Dryer is a bit much but he contracts movingly into a rattletrap, segregated Bus. Emilie Battle, Nikki Stephenson and Anich D’Jae Wright are delightful as the Radio (a pop Greek chorus) and A’lisa D. Miles is a sensuous Washing Machine; her gentle undulations cleverly suggesting the wash cycle.

There are books, plays and films about racial prejudice viewed through the eyes of a (usually white) child --- a touching but safe angle since the child is powerless and therefore passive, as is Noah in CAROLINE OR CHANGE, further distanced by a nostalgic slant, but what about the Carolines of today and the Noahs who become teenagers and adults? It is time to stop coddling audiences, especially white ones, by saying what’s past is past and all has healed and been forgiven --- it hasn’t, yet, on either count. The nameless narrator in Ralph Ellison’s INVISIBLE MAN is told to never show the White Man the Truth which, in turn, supports the Lie; CAROLINE OR CHANGE is not a lie but it only goes so far --- it would have been quite inflammatory back in 1963, which only shows how far we’ve come, artistically, just as BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, set in the same era, has been hailed as the Great Gay Film that today’s straight audiences have been waiting for.

"Caroline or Change" (5 May-3 June)
in association with NORTH SHORE MUSIC THEATRE
Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 933-8600

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide