Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Caroline, or Change
But peck I must. The difficult truth about Caroline, more or less revealed in the memory of the white boy who lives upstairs, is that she is a hardened, resolute survivor of a system that's rapidly dying around her. And by the end, she is simply swept aside, like "whites only" drinking fountains, vanishing from the final scene, as if she'd been crushed by the sheer ebullience of the Civil Rights movement, as it finally became a reality.
Caroline works for a young white Jewish family, and their Passover dinner is staged all the way down center, lending prominence to her employers and their parents: morally or spiritually alive liberals from New York City, thoughtful and humane individuals whose own parents were the backbone of the New Deal era. The last time I saw Caroline, or Change, the Gellman extended family was all the way upstage, high on a platform; with Caroline far below. The result here is more immediate, if a bit conventional.
For plot, you have a young, fictionalized version of Mr. Kushner. Noah is a boy who leaves coins in his pockets with the hopeful notion that the accumulated change will make things better for the family maid, coins she will find during her washing up. Zoe Klevorn is terrific as Noah, and like nearly all of the supporting actors on stage, her Noah is filled with vivid hopes and dreams.
But things have been hard for Caroline for so long that she's become a stranger to hope. And though Fly North Theatricals' perfect revival gets the full treatment of blues and woe (alternating with frequent upbeat numbers from the supporting cast), it also makes us feel a tiny bit smug–to know that things are, indeed, just about to change. Still, watching Ms. Blaylock perform is a rare treat, like re-watching the sepia-toned old documentary Jazz on a Summer's Day.
Of course the show demands a balance, and this dour Caroline gives everyone else something very solid to push upward from, as if the entire supporting cast is starting a furious race to a higher emotional state, the minute she stops singing. And their collective musical expertise is something to behold.
Ms. Blaylock may be the best singer in the bunch, and frequently reveals a deep soulfulness. But you have to reckon that the consistent, fiery chemical reaction on stage in song and dance is at least fifty percent in spite of her. That fiery optimism comes across as a sense that the system, and spirituality itself, could create change in 1963. Kimmie Kidd is radiant as the magical singing Moon, an object of hope, and also as one of the three girl singers collectively known as The Radio. She's joined by the thrilling Ebony Easter and Adrienne Spann in frequent uplifting "Radio" numbers.
Jordan Wolk, who was so perfect last year as John Wilkes Booth in Fly North's Assassins, adds an occasionally pensive note as Noah's father Stuart. And lovely singer Avery Lux's performance is replete with social tactics and charming counter-moves as his second wife, Rose. She combines an authentic "June Cleaver" optimism with lots of complexity, in the form of emotional switchbacks.
Kanisha Kellum adds personality as the voice of the Washing Machine and as Caroline's confidant, Dotty Moffett. And Kenya Nash is first rate as Caroline's independent-minded daughter Emmie. Hers is not specifically a John Waters type of performance, nor a John Ford one, either. But she shows an understanding that life can be shockingly inhospitable at times. Good actors may sometimes seem to be shouting into the wind, and that applies here too, though subtly.
Actor/singer Duane Foster is outstanding, delivering bad news in November 1963, and Cameron Hadley and Malachi Borum are very professional as Caroline's two young sons. The rest of the white cast, of the extended Gellman family, includes great local favorites Ken Haller and Mara Bollini; and Kent Coffel as Ms. Lux's onstage father. I knew a lot of wonderful people like the Gellmans growing up, and while Caroline, or Change is not overtly a Lawrence Welk Show spectacle of nostalgia, the reception in the audience is vaguely similar. This production quite intentionally hits a host of warm, cultural, sentimental psychological notes along the way.
The whole thing is a strange relic, though, like some bitter tale of the last Pullman porter, nobly going about his job till the end–albeit with endlessly wonderful singing here (and at least fifty percent upbeat numbers, I swear!). In the most entrancing way possible, it shows us that human fallibility must always be set against the dawn of a new age. And we stare into Caroline's hopelessness, wearing the face of hope ourselves.
Caroline, or Change runs through August 12, 2023, at the Marcelle Theatre, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive, St. Louis MO. Evening showtimes at 7:30 and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. For tickets and more information, please visit www.flynorththeatricals.com.