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St. Louis by Richard Green

Caroline, or Change
The Black Rep & HotCity Theatre

Caroline, or Change
P.J. Palmer and Anita Jackson
If you are in Chicago, Indianapolis, Nashville, Memphis, Little Rock, Oklahoma City, Kansas City, Omaha, or Des Moines, I would urge you to pick up the phone and get a ticket to Caroline, or Change at the Grandel Theater in St. Louis as soon as possible. Midwestern theater-goers less than a day’s drive away would be foolish to do otherwise.

Anita Jackson is outstanding as Caroline, the New Orleans washer-woman in Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s musical. It’s said to be the first Midwestern production of the show since it closed on Broadway.

P.J. Palmer is delightful as Noah, the boy who spends his afternoons with Caroline after school in his parents’ basement. The whole cast is terrific, but I have to summon up the name of Bethany Barr for special admiration as Noah’s stepmother. The jittery cheerfulness that covers her heartbreaking attempts to take over from Noah’s deceased birth mother are harrowing and hilarious. I would like to be able to describe her final scene with young Mr. Palmer, but my eyes were filled with tears. Tim Schall is very good as Noah’s father, trying to develop a working relationship with the boy after his birth-mother’s death.

Set in the fall of 1963, Kushner’s script and Ron Himes’ direction exceed all reasonable expectations in setting the tension and framing the debate around the Civil Rights movement. Candace Parker, Lisa Ramey and Leah Stewart vamp it up as a trio of Motown-style singers, dressed to suggest antique radios, as the sassy chorus of the show. Millie Garvey supplies their perfect choreography.

Verging on operetta, Kushner and Tesori provide a long list of artful duets and counterpoints for fine performers like Denise Thimes, Rochelle Walker and Karen Hylton. Ms. Hylton appears high above the action as a glittering moon. She and Ms. Walker get fantastic gowns from Reggie Ray, and all benefit from the musical direction of Charles Creath (on piano) with a five piece band off-stage.

Ms. Jackson, in the title role, is at her most brilliant in the song "Lot’s Wife," balancing her pride against her family’s needs. Other high points for her include "1943", in which she describes her troubled married life; and scene one's "I Got Four Kids," in which circumstances seem to have torn the breath from her. The old saying tells us we must be hammer or anvil, and though the world ordains she be the latter, Caroline stands ten feet tall whenever she sees the chance to grab that hammer.

The great impact of this show comes from the phenomenal humanity of its characters and their conflicts, making it remarkably easy to suspend disbelief, whether the cast is bursting into song or butting heads over many and varied injustices on all sides. Their realism makes it all the more astounding when they can come to terms with one another in the end.

Mr. Palmer’s songs often carry a melodramatic underscore in the music, which is a gleeful touch for a boy in elementary school. On Jim Burwinkel’s multi-leveled set, with its Jewish temple up right, moments of classical drama are easy to grasp: Noah’s family is generally on the uppermost levels; and Caroline down in the pit, with her hot, noisy washer and dryer.

The other children are enjoyable, especially when dancing. Naima J. Carter as Emmie, the oldest of Caroline’s brood, is also excellent singing and acting the part of the obstreperous pre-teen.

The cast also includes John Meurer as a memorable throwback to the heyday of the Jewish left wing, along with noted actors John Contini and Donna Weinsting as Noah’s grandparents. Tre’Von Griffith and Jordan Ward are lighter than air as Caroline’s dancing sons, with touching moments of their own as well. Drummond Crenshaw is wickedly funny as the personification of Caroline’s basement dryer.

In the act one closer, "Roosevelt Petrucius Coleslaw," the lyrics sometimes became foggy in the first weekend performance, as they did in "The Bus" song. But these are the only complaints I can find in an experience which boasts scope, meaning, drama and comedy - all with what appears to be effortless ease and beautiful singing.

Through January 29, 2006 at the Grandel Theater, 3610 Grandel Square. For ticket information call (314) 534-3610. Wednesdays through Sundays.


Photo: Rodgers Townsend/Creative Group


-- Richard T. Green

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