‘ Caroline, Or Change” is a powerful piece of theater, and it works on several levels. Musically, it is stunning, featuring grand voices in an operatic style, with the dialogue sung throughout.
The psychology and emotions of the characters are moving, and the 1963 political climate, with the death of President Kennedy and evolving civil rights activism, is a significant setting.
First written for a 1995 commission by the San Francisco Opera for a libretto focusing on race and social transformation in America, “Caroline, Or Change” appeared on Broadway as a musical by Tony Kushner with a score by Jeanine Tesori.
The presentation is operatic, but the music ranges in style from blues to Motown, spirituals and klezmer, fueled by the elegant voices of the PCPA Theaterfest cast, directed by Patricia Troxel. Brad Carroll is musical director and Michael Jenkinson is choreographer.
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The setting is Lake Charles, Louisiana, where Caroline Thibodeaux, a divorced African American maid, works for the Gellmans, a middle-class Jewish family. She lives with her three children. The fourth is serving in Vietnam.
Caroline’s attitude is businesslike, if not cranky, but she warms a bit to the Gellman son, 8-year-old Noah, who is mourning the loss of his mother to cancer and resisting the efforts of his stepmother, Rose, to get close to him. He is distanced from his father as well, as they cope with his mother’s loss in their separate ways.
Noah has a habit of leaving change in his pockets before he puts his clothes in the laundry and his stepmother hopes to teach him a lesson by deciding that Caroline can keep what she finds in his pockets. He begins to leave money on purpose, imagining that he is helping and somehow part of Caroline’s family. The story escalates from there, but it’s not just about loose change. It’s about personal change, a changing country, and Caroline’s refusal to change.
Karole Foreman is superb as Caroline, with intense emotion as she sings, especially in a heartfelt aria that can move listeners to tears. Carter Thomas, who played Michael Banks in a national tour of Mary Poppins, is touching as the sad young Noah.
Joanna Jones, who was a finalist in the NBC show “The Sing-Off,” is a standout as Caroline’s activist daughter. Jones, who graduated from Nipomo High School, is now studying musical theater at UCLA. She has a beautiful voice and is a fine actor. Caroline’s other children are played by Kahlil Leneus and Taylor Brown.
Setting the play in a Jewish home injects a sense of irony into the political aspects of the story. During a celebration of Hanukkah, Noah’s grandfather argues with Caroline’s daughter about the civil rights movement as Noah’s father and stepmother try to tone things down. Later, in a climactic scene, Caroline and Noah stun each other with ethnic and racial comments.
Elizabeth Stuart is good as stepmother Rose, and Mark D. Hines plays Noah’s distracted father. Kitty Balay and Billy Breed are the grandparents.
The scenario is serious, but there is a sense of whimsy as singers are cast as The Washing Machine, The Dryer and The Radio, Caroline’s companions in the laundry room. And The Moon high above the stage sings of change, constancy and things to come. The Radio is represented by a lively Motown-style trio, Kathryn McCreary, Katrina Mc-Graw and Nohealani Alisa Cambra. Cicily Daniels sings as The Washing Machine and is also excellent as Caroline’s friend, Dotty. Frank Viveros has a powerful voice as he plays The Dryer and The Bus. Tracy Camp is the lovely lady hanging and singing as The Moon.
The set functions simply as the laundry room, Caroline’s home, and other locations. But it also works as a bright visual memory bank as images of JFK, Martin Luther King and scenes from the civil rights movement are projected above on bright, primary-colored abstract paintings. This is effective and creative, but not obtrusive, complementing rather than distracting from the personal story. DeAnne Kennedy is scenic designer and Tamar Geist is lighting designer.
“Caroline, Or Change” is a production that showcases professional performers who are fine singers and strong actors. The audience gave them one of the most enthusiastic standing ovations I can remember at the Marion Theatre.