Saturday, September 20, 2008

Caroline or change

Dobama & Karamu unite for a “go see” ‘CAROLINE, OR CHANGE’

On the surface, ‘CAROLINE, OR CHANGE,’ now being co-produced by Dobama and Karamu at the Karamu Performing Arts Center facility, is a glimpse at a personal childhood experience of author Tony Kushner.

The musical centers on Caroline Thibodeaux, a divorced, middle-aged African-American, $30 a week maid, who works for a Jewish family in the suburban enclave of Lake Charles, Louisiana, in 1963. Caroline is resistant to the sweep of change she sees around her. She seldom talks, and almost never smiles, even to her own children or friends. She appears to be protecting herself from an explosion of rage or tears.

The Gellmans' young son, Noah, who is feeling abandoned due to the death of his mother, the emotional withdrawal of his father, and the insertion into his life of a well-meaning but rigid stepmother, is enamored with Caroline, even though she doesn’t reciprocate. In order to teach Noah responsibility, his stepmother tells Caroline that she should keep the change Noah carelessly leaves in the pockets of his clothes which are given to Caroline to wash. Caroline is loathe to take money from the child, but her own children desperately need food and clothing. The status quo goes awry over a $20 bill, which Noah received as a Hanukah present and leaves in his pants pocket, causing a rift between Caroline and the Gellmans. But, as with all aspects of this well-crafted script, that’s only the obvious reason.

The play’s title has at least a four-pronged implication. The obvious is the change that Noah leaves in his pockets and its ramifications. What should be done with that change? Second, America in the 1960s is filled with a change in racial relations and rage over the murder of JFK and MLK. How should/does Caroline react? She also finds herself in the middle of conflict among the Gellmans as they try to make changes in their family dynamics. What possible change does this mean for Caroline? And, there are the changes she faces as her daughter takes stands that challenge the patterns of the past forcing Caroline to decide how to manage not only the changes in own her life but those of her family.

In 2003 the off-Broadway production of ‘CAROLINE, OR CHANGED’ opened. Due to its success it was moved to Broadway, where it had a disappointingly short 136 performance run, but still was nominated for 6 Tony Awards.

The script, like all of Kushner’s works, such as ‘ANGELS IN AMERICA’ and ‘HOMEBODY/KABUL,’ is thought provoking and has strong social and political messages. Jeanine Tesori's score is melodic, vibrant and ranges from neo-operatic to R & B to Klezmer. It is very unlike her ‘THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE’ score.

The Dobama/Karamu production, under the direction of Sarah May, is often compelling, and always interesting. May understands that the underbelly of the script is the angst of the leading characters and has conveyed this to her cast. This script is a very difficult undertaking and May did a masterful job of guiding the production.

Sheffia Randall Dooley is compelling as Caroline. She has a fine voice, wraps herself into the role and lives the part. She is Caroline! Her underlying rage and sadness are always present on her face, in her body, and portrayed by her voice. Bravo!

Christian Flaherty’s Noah is a bundle of internal chaos. Noah is a sad little marionette whose strings often just don’t work right. Flaherty’s plaintive singing voice and nerdy movements all are character right.

Katherine DeBoer is quite acceptable in her portrayal of Rose, Noah’s stepmother. The rest of the members of the Gellman family don’t fair as well as there is a surface level quality to their performances.

In supporting roles, talented Aric Generette Floyd lights up the stage as Jackie, one of Caroline’s children. His real-life sister Alexis sings well and makes Emmie, Caroline’s daughter, into an authentic person.

Colleen Longshaw gives a fine performance as Caroline’s friend Dotty.

The musical supporting cast are all excellent, especially Rebeca Morris as The Moon and Ayeshah Douglas as the Washing Machine.

Musical Director Ed Ridley and his band are wonderful…underscoring rather than over powering the singing and playing the ever-changing musical genres with ease.

Richard H. Morris Jr. has designed a functional set which doesn’t get in the way of the action.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘CAROLINE, OR CHANGE’ is not a show that will appeal to everyone as it is not an escapist musical with a happy ending. However, it is a must-go-to for anyone interested in the theatre and seeing a well-honed production. Thanks to Karamu and Dobama for giving Clevelanders a chance to experience CAROLINE, OR CHANGE.