Saturday, September 14, 2019

"Caroline, Or Change"

Caroline, Or Change
Jeanine Tesori (Music); Tony Kushner (Book & Lyrics)

Elizabeth Jones, Cadarious Mayberry, Majesty Scott, Jasmyne Brice, Antone Jackson & Leslie Ivy
It is November 1963; and after a relatively stable 1950s, change is in the air everywhere – some good, some scary, some revolutionary, and in one case, an event tragic for a nation and the world.  But in one of the few basements in the soggy state of Louisiana where most people have to be buried above ground, for Caroline Thibodeaux, her life is the same with little change ever in each hot, muggy day in her purgatory world populated only by a washer, a dryer, a radio, and piles of dirty or to-be-ironed clothes.  After all, she is thirty-nine and in her twenty-second year as still a black house maid, presently for a house of white Jews.

But change is something Caroline and all the world around her cannot avoid that November.  In the 2004 musical, Caroline, Or Change – Tony Kushner, book and lyrics, and Jeanine Tesori, music – ‘change’ takes on many faces and meanings for each and all the characters as they sing their hopes and dreams, their doubts and fears, their moments of happiness and their lingering sadness in songs that range from blues to folk, soul to Motown, spirituals to Jewish kletzmer.  Ray of Light Theatre once again proves that the company reigns supreme in presenting rarely done, musically challenging, and message-rich musicals.  ROL does so with a big cast of voices spectacular; a full orchestra superb; as well as direction, choreography, costuming, lighting, and sound stunning in every respect.   The result is a Caroline, Or Change that is a must-see for its theatrical excellence, its emotional impact, and its musical quality.

Dressed in starched white head to toe, Caroline politely says as little as possible with looks often bland and expressionless as she does her job of dusting, washing, and ironing the best she can for the Gellman family – doing what she can to feed and cloth her three, at-home kids on her thirty dollars a week salary.  Ignoring as much as she is able the turbulent social and political changes occurring around her as well as trying to forget the scars of an abusive husband who walked out on her and her kids, Jasmyne Brice as Caroline sings in a stoically powerful voice trying to believe with confidence, “Nothin’ ever happen in underground Louisiana” (“16 Feet Beneath the Sea”).  

But what does happen in her basement ‘office’ is that a sexy, swishing washer suddenly comes to hip-swirling life – scantily clothed as if ready for some Caribbean Isle – with Leslie Ivy as the Washing Machine singing in soaring, Calypso-like voice as she encourages Caroline to keep moving forward through her day and in her life.  Not to be outdone, a deeply stirring and disturbing voice comes from the direction of the dryer as Antone Jackson as The Dryer musically slides and moans in his all-blue-and-sparkling suit and shoes through two-plus octaves of compelling, grabbing notes while urging Caroline in tempting and lusty thrusts, “Time has come, turn on the dryer ... time has come to suffer heat”  (“The Dryer”).  As clothes wash and dry, The Radio comes to shockingly-pink-clad life, providing background narrative and Greek-Chorus-like reactions and advice as Elizabeth Jones, Cadarious Mayberry, and Majesty Scott move and groove in Motown, closely-harmonized vocals and hand-to-foot coordination (“The Radio,” “Laundry Finish,” and others, all choreographed divinely by Angel Adedokan).  Without blinking an eye and usually without much of a smile, Caroline joins in everything from duets to quintets with the inanimate objects around her, giving spark, punch, and oomph to her otherwise long, sweaty, boring day (“Laundry Quintet”).

But humans do also invade the sanctity of her stifling abode.  There is Noah, her boss’ eight-year-old boy, who comes down everyday to talk incessantly while Caroline mostly only nods or even ignores him.  However, she does let him light her a cigarette – a secret they both with devilish looks share since they could each get in big trouble if his step-mother, Rose, finds it out. 

Christopher Ivy, Matt Beall & Judy Beall
As Noah, Christopher Apy brings a contagiously attractive voice at that wonderful point where a boy’s soprano tones have yet to have many masculine hints as he sings about “Caroline, our maid” whom he sees as “always mad,” ‘runs everything,” and “stronger than my dad” (“Noah Down the Stairs”).  Noah runs every day after school to be with Caroline, probably because he misses the mom who died of lung cancer and cannot yet stand to be around her best friend, Rose, whom his dad has now married.  Stuart, his dad (Roy Eikleberry), lives in his own unhappy seclusion, practicing his clarinet and mostly avoiding much alone time with the son who still misses his mom so much.  Of his new step-mom, Noah can only sing with a boy’s biting and sharp snarl, “I hate her , I hate her with all my heart” (“Rose Stopnick Can Cook”).

Yet when Noah is with Caroline, he is clearly happy, even if she only begrudgingly gives him any encouragement.  At night as he sits on his bed and she on her porch and while each looks up wistfully at the moon above, the two sing duets where they share in their minds the things they dare not say to each other during the day.  Providing comfort and solace and a listening ear to both is the big, always changing moon – one that comes to full, arm-spread-and-flowing life by Jacqueline Dennis whose rich, beautiful, and soothing voice also tries to prepare Caroline for what is to come in her life: “Change come fast and change come slow but change come, Caroline Thibodeaux” (“Moon Change”).

And change does arrive in the form of forgotten, loose coins in a boy’s pockets.  Step-mom Rose is disturbed that Noah keeps leaving a few cents every day in his pants.  In a fast-clipped, almost frenetic song, Katie Pimentel as Rose encourages Caroline to “just keep it, just keep it” as a means of teaching the boy a lesson (“Noah Has a Problem”).  Caroline is reluctant (“I don’t want to take pennies from a baby”) but begins to see the possibilities of extra dimes and quarters in terms of things she can give her three kids.  Noah starts leaving in his pockets parts of his allowance purposively, believing in his lonely, unhappy head that now Caroline and her kids talk about him and might even want him to come live with them.

In this story that is told almost exclusively in non-stop music, complications will arise as more money is lost and found.  As a president is assassinated, a tragedy of other sorts will hit Rose and Noah’s relationship, one leading to each saying racially based and hurtful things they neither one really mean to say.  And as their relationship changes, each experiences other shifts all around them unwelcome and unsettling but in the end important for each in the process of moving on with their lives.

Markalia Dyson, Royal Mickens, Jasmyne Brice & Antonio Banks
Noah is not the only kid issue Caroline has.  Her own teenage daughter, Emmie, is dismissive of the President’s death (“Just some ol’ white man don’t care about the black man”), is using words like “black” instead of the more safe and accepted “colored” or “Negro,” and is intrepidly argumentative with Rose’s visiting, leaning-Socialist father (Mr. Stopnick played by a twinkly-eyed, firebrand Michael Demartini).  Throughout, Markalia Dyson as Emmie is a next-generation, African American girl who as a young teen is already not afraid to challenge the white supremacy around here.  The young actor leaves a lasting impression on us as an audience, giving her Emmie bold, striking vocals and a courage conveyed in her sung resolves that leave us assured of Emmie’s future leadership in the fight for black equality.

Jasmyne Brice & Phaedra Tillery
Beside Emmie, Caroline also has trouble accepting the changes in her best friend, the high-spirited, big-voiced Dotty, played with a zeal for life and a determination to improve her own lot in life by Phaedra Tillery.  That Dotty now wears bobby socks instead of stockings and wears “flipped hair” and “plaid skirts” to work as a maid is too much for Caroline, who also calls her “high and mighty” for going to college every night.  As Dotty, Phaedra Tillery’s reaction and her subsequent support of Emmie’s new strides are performed and sung with emotions deeply felt, firmly planted, and beautifully executed.

Joining this immensely impressive cast are Royal Mickens and Antonio Banks as Caroline’s two, delightfully cute and playful sons, Jackie and Joe respectively, both of whom bring big voices for their small statures.  Matt Beall and Judy Beall play Stuart’s mostly in-the-background, supportive, and patriotic parents, Grandpa and Grandma Gellman.  Operatic-voiced Martin Bell makes his one, slow-and-big-stepped appearance as The Bus – one to be remembered both for the power of his deeply rich vocals and the mournful message he brings about President Kennedy as he takes Caroline and Dotty home.

Jenn Bevard astutely directs with non-pause pace and seamless flow the continuous story told mostly through fifty-plus, back-to-back songs on the massive, multi-leveled, multi-roomed set designed by Kuo-Hao Lo.  The director ensures the humor and musical talents of a live washer, dryer, and radio have plenty of room to shine and soar while at the same time never shies from laying bear the starkly contrasting difficulties of family/friend confrontations or of a woman paralyzed in a world changing too fast around her.  The costumes of Bethany Deal add much to the fun and fabulous side of the evening while also underlining such blatant differences as those between black maid and white woman of the house.  Kevin Myrick’s lighting design makes nights magical and basements another world that can turn purgatory into appliance-and-radio-led nightclub in a flash. The sound design of Jerry Girard not only helps the lyric-packed musical project sparkling clear in the old, cavernous Victoria Theatre but also adds nighttime dreaminess with the surround sound of frogs and crickets.  Finally, Music Director David Möschler directs the multi-genre score of Jeanine Tesori with interpretive adeptness, leading the eleven-piece orchestra as their music not only accompanies the singing but also often serves as part of the story’s questioning, answering, and echoing with a dialogue all its own.

And if the reader is yet to be convinced that Ray of Light’s Caroline, or Change is a slice-of-life look at America in 1963 that is not to be missed, Jasmyne Brice’s overall performance as Caroline is that in itself is worth the price of the ticket.  After an entire evening of scenes where the slightest shift in her eyes, a shrug of the shoulder, or a word sustained in song can each convey volumes, Caroline gives a heart-wrenching confessional along with a plea to God and to herself of “Don’t let my sorrow make evil of me.” Her climactic “Lot’s Wife” becomes a stunning, show-stopping moment where Caroline begins to realize that the change that she must undergo is to turn her sense of a failed and faulted past into stone, leave it behind, and set herself free to move on.  Her realization is Caroline, Or Change.

Rating: 5 E, MUST-SEE

Caroline, Or Change continues through October 5, 2019 at the Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at .

Photos by Nick Otto

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