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Caroline, or Change, a CurtainUp review CurtainUp

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A CurtainUp Review
Caroline, Or Change

Caroline Moves to Broadway

Tonya Pinkins as Caroline Thibodeaux  &  Adriane Lenox as The Moon
Tonya Pinkins as Caroline Thibodeaux
While it's difficult to see and fairly evaluate a straight play twice in one season (especially one as harrowing as the just transferred Frozen ), a musical really needs to be seen more than once to fully absorb the music and lyrics. Seeing Caroline, Or Change a second time, and in a Broadway house, is a case in point. I very much lked Jeanine Tesori's score when I first saw Caroline at the Public's Newman Theater. It struck me as twice as powerful and melodic this time around. And that goes for the entire show.

Unlike some small musicals which lose a certain intimacy during a Broadway transfer, Caroline actually has a warmer more intimate feel at the O'Neill. Happily, the sound hasn't been over-ampliefied and the lyrics remain clear. The cast, which with two exceptions, is the same as the original is better than ever. This is especially so for its star, Tonya Pinkins. I responded to her the first time, but this time she brought tears to my eyes when she hugs her daughter at the end of her thrilling final aria.

Anika Noni Rose and Chandra Wilson, who play Caroline's daughter Emmie and friend Dotty respectively, also seem to have deepened their acting and singing. Harrison Chad's performance more than compensates for his having gained a few inches so that he now looks closer to eleven than eight.

The new Jackie Thibodeaux, Leon G. Thomas III, is just fine and dandy and the new Moon, Aisha de Haas, is almost better than the original. The scene when Ricardo Hernandez's giant tree opens up to reveal the Moon is just one of many stunning visual images that director George C. Wolfe has transferred most effectively to its new home.

With its serious theme and almost completely sung-through score, Caroline is not your average tourist musical. Still, if it collects some of the major awards it deserves, maybe it will reach the large audience it also deserves.

Caroline, or Change
Book & Lyrics: Tony Kushner
Music: Jeanine Tesori
Directed by George C. Wolf
CastTonya Pinkins as Caroline Thibodeaux; with: Reathel Bean (Grandpa Gellman), Harrison Chad (Noel Gelman), Tracy Nicole Chapmen (The Radio), Chuck Cooper (The Dryer, The Bus), David Costabile (Stuart Gillman), Veanne Cox (Rose Topnick Gellman), Marcus Carl Franklin (Joe Thibodeaux), Marva Hicks (The Radio), Capathia Jenkins (The Washing Machine), Larry Keith (Mr. Stopnick), Ramona Keller (The Radio), Aisha de Haas replaced Adriane Lennox (The Moon, Alice Playten (Grandma Gellman), Anika Moni Rose (Emmie Thibodeaux), Leon G. Thomas III, replaces Kevin Ricardo Tate (Jackie Thibodeau), Chandra Wilson (Dotty Moffett)
Set Design: Ricardo Hernández
Costume Design: Paul Tazwell
Hair Design: Jeffrey Frank
Lighting Design: Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer
Sound Design: Jon Weston
Orchestrations: Rick Bassett, Joseph Joubert, Buryl Red
Music Supervisor: Kimberly Grigsby
Music Director & Conductor: Linda Twine
Choreography: Hope Clarke
Running time: 2 1/2 hours, includes one 15-minute intermission
Eugene O'Neill, 230 W. 49th St., (Broadway/8th Av) 212/239-6900
From 4/12/04; opening 5/02/04.
Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesday through Saturday at 8pm, Wednesday and Saturday at 2pm, and Sunday at 3pm. Tickets.$26 to $101
Reevaluated by Elyse Sommer 5/03/04

Musical Scenes
Act One
  • Washer/Dryer
  • Cabbage
  • Long Distance
  • Moon Change
  • Duets
  • The Bleach Cup
Act Two
  • Ironing
  • The Channukah Party
  • The Twenty Dollar Bill
  • Aftermath
  • "Voice Mail #4"
  • Lot's Wife
  • How Long Has This Been Going On? (reprise)
  • Epilogue

--- The Original Review

Change come fast and change come slow
but change come, Caroline Thibodeaux

---The Moon
There's plenty of singing. In fact, Tony Kushner's first venture into musical theater is sung through, essentially a verse play for which Jeanine Tesori has written a rich and varied musical accompaniment. Under George C. Wolf's direction Caroline, or Change has the aura of a small musical; yet, by the time the cast comes out to take its bows, you realize there's a full complement of players on the Newman Stage.

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.

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