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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Caroline, or Change
Arden Theatre Company

Caroline, or Change
Griffin Back and Joilet F. Harris
Caroline, or Change is one of the most ambitious pieces of musical theater to emerge this decade. While it's not perfect, it is an exciting mix of complex music and stimulating drama, and director Terrence J. Nolen's production at the Arden Theatre never lags for a minute.

Caroline is a black maid working for the Gellmans, a Jewish family, in 1963 Louisiana. The "change" in the title refers to the social upheavals of the time - the civil rights movement, the JFK assassination, the Vietnam war - and to the spare quarters that the family's eight-year-old son Noah accidentally leaves in his pockets when his pants are being laundered. Noah's stepmother - whose arrival in the household from New York causes a few more types of change - urges Caroline to keep the money for herself as a way of teaching young Noah a lesson about the importance of money. But that makes Caroline uncomfortable and forces her to deal with issues about her place in society that she'd rather not raise; as she sings in the show's climactic scene, "changin's a danger for a woman like me."

The book and lyrics by Tony Kushner (Angels in America) delve into the psyches of nearly all the characters, making their motivations clear and compelling. But Caroline, or Change isn't all grim realism; there are also moments of fantasy in which inanimate objects come to life and sing to Caroline - human representations of her washing machine, her radio, even the moon and the bus she rides to work. These fleshed-out objects flesh out the drama too, although it sometimes becomes frustrating that the fantasy sequences take the place of interaction between characters we come to care about. (This is largely an interior drama, and while it can be fascinating to see the characters evolve, Caroline, or Change may be too subtle and slow-moving for some audiences.)

Nearly every line in Caroline, or Change is sung, and the music by Jeanine Tesori (Thoroughly Modern Millie) cleverly uses many different styles - from sixties pop (the radio is personified as a Supremes-style girl group) to gospel to klezmer to opera. Not all of it works - a scene that shows Noah bonding with Caroline's children is accompanied by a ridiculous attempt at children's music - but at its best, Tesori's music is as gripping and dramatic as Kushner's lyrics.

Joliet F. Harris' performance as Caroline is superb, but it's also very different from the acclaimed performance that Tonya Pinkins gave in the 2004 Broadway production. Where Pinkins often seemed belligerent, Harris is merely stoic; when Noah asks Caroline why she's always so mean, it's a little confusing, since Harris' Caroline is not so much mean as she is impassive. Yet it's a choice that works, one that makes Caroline's epiphany at the evening's end more understandable.

Supporting her is an exceptional cast of actor/singers. Standouts include the charming Griffin Back as Noah; Sherri L. Edelen as his needy stepmother and Adam Heller as his remote father; Elyse McKay Taylor as Caroline's defiant daughter; Kelly J. Rucker as Caroline's wise friend Dotty; and Thursday Farrar, who sings the role of the moon and is, appropriately, luminous.

The Arden's technical staff has done their usual first-rate job, but James Krozner's set design is especially noteworthy; it places the Gellman's laundry room - where Caroline spends most of her time - in a pit at the center of the stage. That pit seems to represent Caroline's social standing and her low opinion of herself. At the evening's end, when the big-voiced Harris tears into her climactic aria "Lot's Wife," she sings it from a raised platform; it's very much like a mountaintop, which seems an appropriate destination for an African American in 1963.

The low-lying laundry room also gives an added dimension to Kushner's lyrics. "They ain't no underground in Louisiana," sings Caroline, "there is only under water" - lyrics that have even more relevance now, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, than when they were first sung on Broadway three years ago. It's just one example of the multi-leveled richness that make the Arden's Caroline, or Change so rewarding.

Caroline, or Change runs through April 8, 2007 at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street. Ticket prices range from $27 to $45 and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, online at www.ardentheartre.org or in person at the box office.

Caroline, or Change
Book and lyrics by Tony Kushner
Music by Jeanine Tesori
Directed by Terrence J. Nolen
Music Direction... Eric Ebbenga
Scenic Design... James Kronzer
Costume Design... Rosemarie E. McKelvey
Lighting Design... Justin Townsend
Sound Design... Jorge Cousineau
Choreographer... Patricia Scott Hobbs
Stage Manger... John David Flak

CAST:
Joilet F. Harris... Caroline Thibodeaux
Adé Laoye... The Washing Machine
Marsha Lawson, Tallia Brinson, Danielle Herbert... The Radio
Griffin Back... Noah Gellman
Jay Pierce... The Dryer/The Bus
Maureen Torsney-Weir... Grandma Gellman
Russell Leib... Grandpa Gellman
Sherri L. Edelen... Rose Stopnick Gellman
Adam Heller... Stuart Gellman
Kelly J. Rucker... Dotty Moffett
Thursday Farrar... The Moon
Elyse McKay Taylor... Emmie Thibodeaux
Nicholas Blake Trawick... Jackie Thibodeaux
Malik Burrell... Joe Thibodeaux
Alan Kutner... Mr. Stopnick

Photo: Mark Garvin


-- Tim Dunleavy



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