Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
The company planned this redesign of its theater, sealed the doors to the public after its 2019 season ended, and now we get to see the results. The word I kept hearing as I entered was "Wow!" and I heard it over and over. There are gorgeous red carpets, and everything about the design is breathtaking. So here is wishing them a long healthy and happy future in the Gerri Aaron and the Aaron Family Foundation Theatre Building.
Caroline, or Change is just about a perfect choice for such a momentous occasion. While not well received at its Broadway run, with 136 performances, it had its strong partisans and can be counted a success d'estime. The musical is due to be revived on Broadway this season in a production by Roundabout Theater Company and starring Sharon D. Clarke who garnered superb notices in the role in London.
Ms. Tesori's career is an interesting one; she has both serious musicals to her credit (this one and Fun Home), lighter-hearted fare (Thoroughly Modern Millie and Shrek), with Violet in between. I am not a fan of Caroline, or Change's main conceit, a sort of greek chorus of people representing inanimate objects (Washing Machine, Radio, Dryer, Bus, Moon). The commentary from these groupings is very much from the prospective of the object. I knew what I was getting in to, but several people around me didn't seem to catch on until very late or at the end of the show.
The role of Caroline drives the entire show, but there are several other good roles for the people who populate her world. The basic storyline revolves around a woman so deep in despair that it alters her ability to deal with all the problems around her. Tony Kushner states that the story derives from his childhood.
Jannie Jones plays Caroline Thibodeaux, maid to a middle-class Jewish family. I have been fortunate to have seen Ms. Jones play Lena in Raisin and Ethel Waters in His Eye is On the Sparrow, a biographical play in the period of a little over a year. She is a very fine singer, does full justice to some difficult, rangy music, but it is with her acting that she owns the part. Her performance of "Lot's Wife," the 11 o'clock song, rang into my bones. Charles Shoemaker (seen) sharing the part of 8-year-old Noah with Tommy Lelyo sings strongly and does a really terrific job. Candy McLellan as Caroline's sort of friend Dotty sings the part well, and she emotionally keeps the balances from tipping away from Caroline and toward her when that can easily happen.
Eliza Engle has been having a busy season (West Side Story as Maria and a dancing role in The Merry Widow). She seems to connect with Rose Gellman and remains sympathetic when the character isn't always, in the writing. Courtney Dease as her husband Stuart does not make much of a part that is badly underwritten. When he finally gets a solo halfway through act two, it doesn't connect with the audience. Alexis Ijeoma Nwokoji is excellent as Caroline's oldest daughter (at least at home), Emmie. She is full of the spunk and self-absurdness of a teenager, especially in times of racial strife (1963). Samuel Waite and Kenyon Edwards are the two younger boys, Jackie and Joe. Samuel has proven his huge talents on this stage before; the verdict is out on Mr. Edwards as the roles don't provide strong opportunities.
Vallea E. Woodbury flounces around as The Washing Machine, Toddra Brunson Annaya Osborn and Stephanie Zandra are The Radio, and Brian L. Boyd doubles up as The Dryer and The Bus. Teresa Stanley as The Moon gives a powerhouse vocal performance, showing the talent that propelled her to Broadway for a couple of shows. Linda Roeming as Grandma Gellman, Fred Frabotta as Grandpa Gellman, and John Lombardi as Mr. Stopnick (Rose's father) round out the cast.
Jim Weaver directs with a sure hand. The new stage area is quite a bit larger than the old and he has no trouble adjusting. Musical direction is by Nikki Ervin, with the orchestra situated on the second floor and the music piped in. I hope that is a one time decision for this production only, as having the band physically with us as an audience gives a big lift.
Michael Newton Brown's open but clearly delineated set defines three levels of the house: Noah's bedroom; main floor; and the basement. Costumes by Patricia Vandenberg are period appropriate and wigs by Travis McCue reach new levels of excellence.
In small but noticeable ways there are always new signs of growth within this company. Caroline, or Change is a challenging show, a good choice made by this company.
Caroline, or Change runs through February 16, 2020, at Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, 1646 Nate Jacobs Way, Sarasota FL. For tickets and information, visit westcoastblacktheatre.org.
Cast (in order of appearance):
Caroline, or Change through February 16, 2020, at Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, 1646 Nate Jacobs Way, Sarasota FL. For more information, visit westcoastblacktheatre.org