Reviewed by Will Stackman
After two strong but critically-challenged runs in New York, Off-Broadway and on, plus success in L.A. and recently in 'Frisco, Tony Kushner's semi autobiographical "Caroline or Change", a music drama in folk opera style illumined by Jeanine Tesori's eclectic score, is having its New England premiere in a first-rate effort by Speakeasy Stage Co.--in association with North Shore Music Theatre. The production features some of the best musical actors in Boston, with award-winning actress Jacqui Parker in the title role. It's set in Port Charles, Lousiana, in the home of a well-off Jewish family. It's fall, 1963, just after the Kennedy assassination as the Civil Rights movement is heating up across the river in Mississippi and Alabama.
The rest of director Paul Daigneault's strong ensemble includes IRNE nominees Merle Perkins as Caroline Thibodeaux's best friend Dotty and Jacob Brandt as grieving Noah, the young son of the Gellman family, where Caroline's the maid. Sarah Corey is Jacob's new stepmother, Rose, and IRNE winner Sean McGuirk plays Sarah's father, a old time radical. One of the culminating moments in the play is a argument which erupts at dinner during Grandfather Stopnick's Channukah visit between the old Red and Caroline oldest daughter Emmie, a follower of Dr. King, played Shavanna Galder, a Wellesley sophomore. Almost peripheral to the action, but central to the Gellman family's malaise Michael Mendiola as Stuart, Noah's father, incessantly plays his clarinet, remembering duets with his late wife, Noah's mother. At the same dinner, local stage veterans Dorothy and Dick Santos play his parents.
The action begins in the lonely basement where Caroline does the daily laundry waiting for Noah to get home from school. Working in this grim retreat, which she feels is "under water" are her companions, the Washer, the Dryer, and her Radio, which all sing. The Washer is done by Berklee grad, A'Lisa Miles, resplendent in white. She also sings the Moon, a role with a touch of "The Magic Flute." The somewhat satanic Dryer is IRNE winner Brian Richard Robinson, got up with a period pompadour and ruffles. Robinson also appears as the Bus, personified by its black driver, with a placard around his neck directing negro passengers to the rear. The Radio is a MoTown trio of Anich D'Jae Wright, Emilie Bradlee and Nikki Stephenson performing choreography devised by Jackie Davis who also has the family dancing around the Channukah table. Caroline's younger children are BosCon student Breanna Bradlee (Jackie) and local 3rd grader Dominic Gates (Joe). Her oldest son is in Vietnam. She divorced her husband for desertion and domestic abuse.
Kushner's post-modern opera, featuring a lot of sung-through dialogue and only a few arias, depends on the musical ensemble, all effectively supported by Tesori's intricate score. Music director IRNE winner JosÚ Delgado, conducting a six-piece ensemble from the piano backstage, keeps the action moving along with this versatile cast, who bring a range of interesting voices and tones to the show. It doesn't sound like a musical comedy, similar to Tesori's first effort, "Violet," which frequently goes beyond its popular roots. Only area mikes are used to balance the sound, so the strong voices are quite real. So is the storyline which could easily slip into soap-opera, but is elevated by the abstract characters, the music, and the looming crises of Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, and to bring things right up to date, Katrina. Maybe Kuschner should revisit Caroline Thibodeaux after the flood.
The various scenic locations are efficiently handled on Eric Levenson's unit set. Caroline's basement and front porch roll on and off into the same area downstage left which becomes the Bus Stop, and briefly the kitchen. The Radio appears mostly on a high platform above. The Gellman's dining room a few steps up stage right, where Stuart practices incessantly, has Noah's room behind up a curved staircase backed by a tall louvered window. The latter let's IRNE winning light designer, John R. Malinowski use interesting shadow gobos on occasion. IRNE winner Gail Astrid Buckley has done her usual careful costuming, catching the conservative style of the period. Her costumes for Caroline's abstract companions are witty. Some entrances are made past the audience left and right, allowing Daigneault to keep the action intimate, as it was at the Public Off-Broadway before transferring to the Eugene O'Neill.
The show itself has endearing qualities and memorable moments. There's an intellectual distance at times which cuts off the development of some scenes, moving too soon on to the next incident of interest. The show was cut down from its original three hours with some loss of information. But Caroline's drama, after peaking with │Lot╣s Wife▓, is extended in her final aria, a reprise of "Underwater"--with Noah alone in his room, suggesting that change is coming. The change in the title, by the way, refers first to the coins which Noah forgets in his pants and Caroline carefully removes. This becomes central to the plot when his stepmother, who was his dead mother's best friend incidentally, decides to teach him a lesson and directs Caroline, who is indeed underpaid, to keep what she finds. When she finally finds the $20 bill his grandfather gave him as Chanukah gelt, the situation becomes untenable for both these lonely people. Together with "Ragtime", extended through the 28th at the New Rep with added weekday performances, "Caroline or Change" marks the continued development of the American Musical Theatre, for all the dead-weight of the juke box concoctions clogging the Broadway stage.