Regional Reviews: San Francisco
Caroline, or Change
This musical masterpiece started when the San Francisco Opera asked Tony Kushner to write a libretto for an opera involving the civil rights movement. The playwright drew on his experiences growing up in a middle-class Jewish family in the small town of Lake Charles, Louisiana in the early '60s (Mr. Kushner has stated that the show is not an autobiographical).
Caroline, or Change opened at the 299-seat Public Theatre in New York in 2003 to rave reviews. It then moved to on Broadway where it played 135 performances at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre and was nominated for six Tony awards. Anika Noni Rose won a Tony for her performance. I saw the production one day before the Tony Awards, and I was enthralled with all of the performances, the score by Jeanine Tesori and lyrics by Tony Kushner.
Best of Broadway producer Carole Shorenstein-Hayes has brought most of the New York cast to the Curran along with the original set. Caroline is one of the most stimulating and moving shows that has appeared here in several years. The voices are awe-inspiring and the music is an appealing mixture of musical styles, from African-American to Motown to klezmer music for the Chanukah sequence. It goes well with Tony Kushner's integrated book and lyrics. The playwright has avoided the emotional or social transformation of civil rights in Louisiana in 1963 and has concentrated mostly on the tension that preceded the important events.
Caroline (Tonya Pinkins) is the musical's central character. She is disillusioned and she sings of the disappointments in her life. Her husband has left her and she is trying to raise her three children on the wages of a maid. This God-fearing woman resists the changes that are coming for African-Americans. Caroline's daughter Emmie (Anika Noni Rose) is the "new" African-American who springs up to the sound of a modern age in which blacks will be equal to the whites.
A counterpart to this family is the liberal Jewish family, the Gellmans, who seem to have their own problems. Rose Stopnick Gellman (Veanne Cox) is the second wife of Stuart (David Costabile) and the stepmother to 9-year-old Noah (Benjamin Platt). The lad's mother died of cancer and Noah refuses to accept this new person as his mother. He idolizes Caroline and even sings of her becoming "President of the United States." Both Noah and Caroline are outsiders, both demoralized, and each is alien to the other.
Rose, who believes in the value of money, is upset that Noah is always leaving small change in his pockets, and Caroline puts the coins in a cup for bleach and soap before doing the laundry. However, Rose lays down a law stating that the maid can keep the spare change for herself, to buy for her children treats they could not otherwise afford. Noah is happy with that since it helps Caroline's children. However, during the second act, Rose's father (Larry Keith) is down from New York and he gives Noah a brand new $20 bill for a Chanukah gift. Noah accidentally leaves the bill in the pants pocket. He demands the bill from Caroline, the maid refuses since it will buy Christmas gifts for her children, and an ugly, visceral and racial confrontation takes place between the two.
There are fine and wonderful things in this musical. Tonya Pinkins gives an outstanding performance as the family's African-American maid. She is most persuasive whenever she is center stage. Her song of self-extinction in the second act, "Lot's Wife," is a powerful and soulful aria that is striking. She is able to balance flaming anger with vivacity. Anika Noni Rose (who was a local actress here in San Francisco and received a Dean Goodman award while performing in local productions) is charismatic as Emmie. She has wonderful melodic skills in her arias. Exceptional is the scene in the first act with Benjamin Platt and Caroline's children, played by Leon G Thomas III and Corwin Tuggles, with wonderful, upbeat choreography by Hope Clark. Platt, who was also in the Broadway production, has a beautiful bell clear voice with perfect pitch. His portrayal of a confused 9-year-old boy is exceptional.
Veanne Cox has the most dimensions of the characters on stage. She plays Rose funny, yet movingly tortured due to the boy's intense dislike of her and the sullenness of Caroline. Tracy Nicole Chapman, Marva Hicks and Kenna Ramsey come across well as a "radio" singing the Motown sound. Chuck Cooper (Tony Award winner for The Life) plays several roles, and his powerful voice resonates throughout the theatre. Larry Keith is especially excellent with both singing and acting chops as Rose's ex-Communist father who sells hats at Macy's. Aisha De Haas as The Moon has a vibrant voice while David Costabile as Stuart has very little to do with the exception of simulating the playing of a clarinet in the Jewish feast number. Reathel Bean and Alice Playten are very good in their small roles of Grandpa and Grandma Gellman, and Paula Newsome as Dotty Moffett is good in several of her scenes.
The set is the same as the New York staging. It is beautifully staged using such visuals as hanging coins and the moon glowing through trees. Richard Hernandez' basement set captures the ugliness and scorching discomfort of the room where Caroline spends a great deal of time washing clothes for the family.
Caroline, or Change plays at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary, San Francisco through February 20. Tickets can be obtained at the box office, also at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market at 8th. Tickets also available at Ticketmaster by calling 415-512-7770, at all Ticketmaster ticketcenters, and through Ticketmaster.com. Also check www.bestofbroadway-sf.com
Coming attractions for Best of Broadway include Oklahoma! at the Orpheum Theatre February 1 through 13 and Evita at the Golden Gate Theatre March 15 through April 10th. Grease is currently appearing at the Golden Gate Theatre.