Sunday, April 13, 2008

"Caroline, or Change": ☼ ☼ ☼ 1/2 BANG

The Awards Committee awarded "Caroline, or Change" one star before the show even started, when the live ten-piece orchestra was heard tuning up. A peek into the pit turned up zero (0) synthesizers. That's one star without saying a word. But it got even better.

Tony Kushner's first operatic libretto, written in the mid-1990s after his phenomenal success with "Angels in America," and first produced on stage in 2003, is a production that is, on the surface, a simple story: a young boy, Noah (the autobiographical Kushner), misses his deceased mother and attempts to find solace in his family's basement in Lake Charles, Louisiana, where the African-American maid, Caroline, spends most of her life doing family laundry.

But as Caroline sings in her opening: "Nothing ever happens underground in Louisiana. Because there is nothing underground in Louisiana. Only under water." Caroline is caught up in changing times (the year is 1963) and has little emotional space left over for Noah. We don't get a happy ending, or an unhappy ending, simply a pastiche of lives attempting to cross in a time when barriers were just beginning to fall.

You might love Jeanine Tesori's music, but you won't exit humming. The composer has obviously been required to fit her tunes around Kushner's thick dialogue, and it requires the audience's attention. It's not the Sound of Music, and it's not The Sound of Angels in America either. What it is, is a musical and intellectual journey, combining elements of blues and pop and gospel with Sondheim-like melodic reaches.

(Think 'Porgy and Bess,' but without 'I Loves You Porgy' or 'It Ain't Necessarily So.')

A critical decision was made when the show was first presented to New York Public Theatre director George C. Wolfe (who had directed 'Angels' on Broadway), to cast 'Caroline' not with operatic voices but with musical-theater actors. In this Theatreworks Production, we can see how important a decision that has been: the acting is superb. Wright and her show-daughter Emmie (Valisia LeKae) absolutely steal the show. Emmie has all the hopeful lines, and she delivers them with heart and passion. Plus, she can really sing -- actually, everyone in the cast can, and this includes the young actor Gabriel Hoffman, who was standing in as Noah for cast regular Julian Hornik.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ 1/2 BANG

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Caroline, or Change" three stars to start: One for the involving live music, one for C. Kelly Wright and Valisia LeKae and one more for two other cast standouts: James Monroe Iglehart, who manages to play a clothes dryer, Caroline's ex-husband and a crosstown bus; and Allison Blackwell, who as Caroline's friend Dot is a needed voice of support and reason for Caroline. An extra half-star is awarded for the stunning contrast between Iglehart's "The Earth has Bled: The President is Dead," (as President Kennedy has just been shot) and Emmie's answer: "Some Old White Man."

One BANGLE of Praise goes out to the only terrific stab at humor in the score: 'Roosevelt Petrucius Cole Slaw,' sung by Emmie and her brothers. It's a nursery rhyme -- and one you can sing. It would have been nice to have a few more like it. Still, "Caroline, Or Change" is a novel show -- memoir, opera and social commentary all at once. It should not be missed.

"Caroline, Or Change"
Theatreworks Production
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View CA
Tue-Sun through April 17


cbilleimer said...

16 actors! I loved it. The music is haunting, and varied; jazz, country, the MoTown Sound, the Klezmer music. Fabulous!
The costumes were the best-when I saw the actress who played the washing machine, I knew exactly what she was by that suds-colored dress and her gentle twisting action.

DAK said...

Hi there, I have to agree with you. I thought the staging was superb too. If you haven't seen it, there's a DVD called "Show Business: The Road to Broadway" which talks about four shows, including Caroline, Or Change, and what bizarre things happened to all of them on Broadway. Thanks for writing, come back often! - DAK