Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
In the case of Caroline, or Change, the chamber opera with music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Tony Kushner currently at the Victoria Theatre in a Ray of Light Theatre production, deciding whether to recommend it or not was both: hard at first, then suddenly easy once I realized the source of virtually all the misgivings I was feeling could be heaped upon a single causethe sound.
As I left the theater, I was vaguely unsettled. I knew I had loved the cast, which features some powerhouse performances. I knew that I hated the set, which feels a bit thrown togetherfrom design through constructionover the course of a long weekend, and offers almost nothing in terms of a sense of place. I didn't think I'd loved Tesori's music or Kushner's lyrics, but I remember bits of gospel or klezmer-influenced melodies and arrangements that make me smile and tap my foot, and cogent, insightful turns of phrase that thrust the story in a new direction or reveal previously hidden emotions. But the more I reflected, the more I realized I hadn't heard enough of Kushner's lyrics and missed some of Tesori's thematic structures and harmonies simply because they are lost in a muddy soundscape.
Some of the blame goes to the sub-par acoustics of the Victoria Theatre, upon which I have commented before, but some responsibility also rests with the sound mix, which has the orchestra at an overly prominent level, often pushing the vocals into the background, making lyrics that much harder to hear.
Whatever the cause, the sad state of the sound made it hard for me to accurately gauge my feelings about the score. I heard phrases and emphases that put me in mind of Tesori's powerful, lovely (and Tony-winning) Fun Home, and (as previously mentioned) enjoyed the klezmer-esque clarinet parts (ostensibly by Roy Eikleberry as Stuart, but actually reed player Audrey Jackson), but the overall score left me vaguely unsatisfied. Was that because the overall score is vaguely unsatisfying, or because I couldn't completely hear it? Did I miss aspects of Kushner's prodigious dramatic talents because it was simply too hard to make out what was being sung? Probably.
But if one is able to ignore the poor sound (familiarity with the score would likely help) and unappealing set, there is some awfully good acting and singing going on. As Noah, the 11-year-old at the heart of this story (about a Jewish family in Louisiana in 1963 and their black maid Caroline), Christopher Apy has a glow onstage that is undeniably appealing. He positively vibrates with pre-adolescent energetic joy. When his character is excited, his eyes brighten the theater with more wattage than the entire lighting rig, and when Noah is angry, they become hooded and glare with a depth that belies his years.
Jasmine Bryce's Caroline has a gravitas that is vital to this role. Despite the circumstances in which Caroline finds herselfa mother of four divorced from an abusive husbandshe is never one to compromise her values or betray her sense of worth, and Bryce carries herself in a way that feels both regal and beaten down, as though wearing a battered crown missing most of its jewels, but that is nonetheless a sign of royalty. Though she missed her pitch on a few occasions, she more than made up for it with an emotional intensity and honesty to her singing that engenders empathy.
As The Dryer and The Bus (Kushner gets a bit anthropomorphic in this one), Anthone Jackson and Martin Bell seize control of the audience's attention every time it's their turn to sing. Jackson's ursine growl still has a touch of honey to it, and his eyebrows deserve a biography all their own in the program, so emotive and revealing are they. Bell's gorgeous bass has been polished by years of opera training and performance, and he puts it all to use as the bearer of bad tidings.
Markaila Dyson, Royal Mickens, and Antonio Banks, playing Caroline's three children Emmie, Jackie, and Joe (the oldest, Larry, is off serving in Vietnam), are a delightful trio of performers. Dyson does especially good work, imbuing Emmie with a righteous teen anger that comes with a precocious sense of how the world is about to changebecause she's going to change it. She makes us both cheer her efforts and feel the disappointment we know is coming for her when she finds those changes won't come nearly as fast as Emmie would like.
Ray of Light clearly has a team of massively talented theatre lovers and the ability to draw terrific performers into their orbit. Now they need to find a more acoustically friendly theater and create more effective sound mixes, because Caroline, and all their other shows, deserve better.
Caroline, or Change, runs through October 5, 2019, at Ray of Light Theatre, Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., with 2:00 p.m. matinees on Saturday, September 28, and October 5, with an extra "industry night" performance on Monday, September 30. Tickets are $15-40, and are available at www.rayoflighttheatre.com.