Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Scott's review of Wicked
The Human Race Theatre Company in Dayton, Ohio, has produced many first-rate musicals in its twenty-five years, but none may have been as challenging as its current show, Caroline, or Change. Strong performances and a solid production team help to effectively showcase this musical as an educational look at a unique period in American history of significant cultural change, while also managing to be engaging and entertaining as a theater piece.
Caroline, or Change is set in the last few months of 1963 in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Caroline is a "colored" maid for a middle-class Jewish family consisting of ten-year-old Noah, his emotionally absent father Stuart, and new stepmom Rose. Caroline has four children herself and they barely scrape by on the $30 a week she is paid. Rose tries to teach Noah to be responsible with his money. She insists that Caroline keep the change that she finds in Noah's pants pockets when she does the laundry. This seemingly small act has a significant impact on everyone involved, especially Caroline.
The book by Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner (Angels in America) Tony Kushner shows off his adept skill at switching back and forth between reality and fantasy (numerous inanimate objectssuch as the washer, dryer, radio, bus, and moonsing), and the characters are intriguing and well developed. Mr. Kushner also tackles multiple social issues associated with this turbulent time of change in America, including race relations, growing differences in religious and regional backgrounds, and the generation gap. As interesting a story as this is, the book is not without its weaknesses. The main characters are basically the same at the end of the show as they were at the beginning. This may be part of the point (some people are unwilling or unable to change), but most great shows chronicle people who either move or are moved to become something different and better. Act two tends to plod when the focus is off Caroline, and the thick story requires a great deal of recitative, which gets somewhat repetitive. Though the use of many of the inanimate objects to provide social commentary is well done for the most part, the Moon character is vague in its symbolism and seems like unnecessary filler.
Caroline, or Change boasts a score with music by Jeanine Tesori (Violet, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Shrek) and lyrics by Mr. Kushner. Ms. Tesori ably uses a number of musical styles, including early '60s rhythm & blues, traditional Jewish melodies, and spirituals. Kushner's lyrics are often poetic, and are multi-layered in their symbolism and structure. The opening sequence (including the catchy "16 Feet Beneath the Sea" and "I Got Four Kids") is especially strong in both music and lyrics. Other song highlights include "Gonna Pass Me A Law," "Roosevelt Petrucius Coleslaw" (a fine showcase for the child actors) and "Lot's Wife."
Director Scott Stoney provides fluid transitions and an apt tone throughout, and has extracted committed performances from his cast. Caroline, or Change is a difficult show to stage, but Mr. Stoney uses the Loft Theatre space well (including the aisles and various spots among the audience). Though his blocking is generally effective, the use of the actors throughout the space does cause some sightline issues at times. The choreography by Teressa Wylie is a fine fit for the material, and Musical Director Scot Woolley skillfully leads a talented 6-piece orchestra and has prepared the singers very well to sing this challenging score.
As Caroline, Tanesha Gary conveys the conflicted emotions of a caring mother who has been beat down by a life of poverty without much hope for improvement. Ms. Gary aptly communicates the anger and resentment of the character while still gaining sympathy. She sings both the quiet, introspective moments and the powerful numbers with technical skill and emotional conviction.
As Emmie, Yvette Williams sings wonderfully and supplies a multi-layered portrayal as the high-spirited daughter of Caroline who strives toward a better life than her mother has attained. Brendan Plate is impressive both vocally and in his confident and appropriate acting choices as 10-year-old Noah. Dwelvan David provides superb, deep bass vocals as the "evil" Dryer and aptly sorrowful Bus. As Noah's stepmom Rose, Adrienne Gibbons Oehlers sings well and is a sympathetic fish-out-of-water Northerner trying to connect to her new family and Caroline. As Dotty, Taprena Augustine exudes just the right attitude to challenge Caroline to consider other ways of looking at life, and sings with skill. The remaining ensemble consists of a mix of local and New York based talentBrittany Campbell, Ashanti J'Aria, Kimberly Shay Hamby, Shawn Storms, Kay Bosse, K.L. Storer, Bruce Sabath, Tonya Thompson, Malachi-Phree J. Pate, J. Miguel Conrado Rojas, and Saul Caplanand all perform admirably.
The scenic design by Dan Gray includes detailed recreations of an early 1960s living room / kitchen on one side of an effectively used turntable, with the dirty basement where Caroline works on the other side. The outside of Caroline's humble home and the moon complete an appropriate and handsome set. John Rensel's theatrical lighting, period appropriate costumes by Kristine Kearney, and clear sound by Nathan D. Dean are all professionally rendered.
Caroline, or Change is an ambitious piece of theater, featuring an intriguing, though not perfect, book and score. The Human Race Theatre Company in Dayton supplies a worthwhile production including an excellent cast. The musical continues at the Human Race Theatre Company through November 20, 2011. For performance and ticket information, call (937) 228-3630 or visit www.humanracetheatre.org.