Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Also see Gil's review of Kiss
The plot is fairly simple. Set right around the time of John F. Kennedy's assassination, in Civil Rights-era Louisiana, Caroline is a divorced, bitter, sullen-faced, black maid who works for the Gellman family and finds herself constantly stuck in their hot basement doing endless laundry. Rose Gellman suggests Caroline keep the pocket change that she constantly finds left behind in the trousers of 8-year-old Noah, as a way of teaching him the value of money. This simple gesture from Rose, which she sees as an easy way to increase Caroline's salary, seems a condescending affront to Caroline, and it sets in motion a story of racial strife and tension that threatens to disrupt the fragile relationships that Caroline has, not only with the members of the Gellman family, but also with those around her. As Caroline struggles to find her place in the world, change in the form of some of the greatest social movements of the 20th century are happening right outside her door.
The through sung score features Tesori's beautiful mixture of music styles: blues, gospel, Motown, pop and even some traditional Jewish music. With many of the songs running just a minute or two, it may prove different and difficult for those used to a more traditional musical theatre score, but it is rich and beautiful and full of emotion, with Kushner's succinct and simple lyrics effectively fitting into the period and representing the characters' emotions expertly. Kushner's book doesn't try to sentimentalize or shortchange the difficulties of the characters, with their pain, suffering, and pent-up emotion always at the forefront.
Director David J. Hemphill has done a lovely job in ensuring the changing styles, shifting tones, and whimsical characters are grounded in reality and, for the most part, his cast delivers both musically and dramatically. Jennifer Robinson's portrayal of Caroline is stunning. With an expressionless face and a perfectly portrayed short temper, she expertly shows Caroline's concealed attempt to hide the pain, fury and fear just beneath her stony exterior. Her powerful vocals deliver throughout, with an emotionally rich "Lot's Wife" that is full of passion and suffering.
While several members of the supporting cast are somewhat weak, Brandi Bigley is lovely as the well-meaning Rose, a woman who is uncomfortable and unsure how to behave around Caroline as well as how to deal with her emotionless and grief-stricken husband and her seemingly unloving stepson Noah. Bigley expertly gets across the lost and confused state of this caring woman. Ebony Gammage is excellent as Caroline's friend Dotty who is eager to find a place for herself in the changing world around her. Zion Russell is equally good as Caroline's teenage daughter Emmie who sees promise in her future.
David Castellano's set design simply yet effectively creates the various locations for the musical, with Joseph Carter's beautiful lighting and Carol Simmons' period perfect costumes adding excellent touches. Music director Brenda Hankins achieves some lovely sounds from the 11-piece orchestra and even larger cast, though at the performance I attended the sound balance was somewhat off with the orchestra often overpowering the cast and the microphones not always working perfectly.
With that singing washing machine and crooning bus, Caroline, or Change might appear to some as a musical fantasia, but it is a deeply moving musical that is full of rich emotion. While there are a few issues with Black Theatre Troupe's production, the stellar performance from Jennifer Robinson and the fact that this is a musical so different from every other musical, makes it a refreshing and must-see show.
The Black Theatre Troupe production of Caroline or Change runs through October 1st, 2017, at the Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center, 1333 East Washington Street in downtown Phoenix. Tickets can be ordered at www.blacktheatretroupe.org or by calling 602-258-8129.
Music by Jeanine Tesori