Caroline Or Change

Caroline, or Change - a new musical
a kate west review
book and lyrics by Tony Kushner
music by Jeanine Tesori
directed by George C. Wolfe
at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 North Grand Ave, Los Angeles 90012
playing November 6 – December 26, 2004; contact 213-628-2772 or

Gordon Davidson, Artistic Director and Producer for the Center Theatre Group, has been bringing innovative and direct-from-Broadway hits to the Los Angeles theater audience for 37 years. Now in his final year of reigning supreme over such local powerhouses as the Ahmanson Theatre and the Mark Taper Forum, he kicks off the season with “Caroline, or Change.” Coming from the creators of the acclaimed Tony award-winning Broadway hit “Angels in America”, Tony Kushner and George C. Wolfe, this new musical should be a runaway hit and indeed has garnered many accolades on Broadway. Unfortunately, the current production does not fully match the majesty and unique brilliance of an acclaimed piece like “Angels in America.”

Fairly heavy-handed, the story revolves around a bitter, yet stoic black maid named Caroline (Tonya Pinkins) working for a Jewish family in Lake Charles, Louisiana, 1963. Her daily labor is accompanied by a Greek chorus of appliances: the Washing Machine (Capathia Jenkins, alternating), the Radio (Tracy Nicole Chapman, Marva Hicks and Kenna Ramsey) and the Dryer and an arbitrarily mobile Bus Stop (currently both played by Chuck Cooper). Although amusing, these devices do not really add much to the play, other than endlessly repeat Caroline’s inner struggle of conscience.

Noah Gellman (in this performance, strongly played by Sy Adamowsky) is the only child of the household. After his mother dies, Rose (Veanne Cox) moves in and tries desperately to be his surrogate mother but he only finds comfort down in the hot basement watching Caroline do laundry. Caroline is “implacable” his mother once said, and in spite of her roughness, Noah adores her until his stepmother’s plan to teach him a lesson results in driving a wedge between him and Caroline. Caroline struggles with her own stubbornness and is aided in achieving some sort of peace by her children, especially her eldest daughter, Emmie (the vibrantly talented Anika Noni Rose), who tries to drag everyone kicking and screaming into a more optimistic future.

The supporting cast is strong, including Veanne Cox as Stepmother Rose, Larry Keith as her argumentative father and Aisha de Haas (alternating) as the Moon overseeing the Louisiana neighborhood on the verge of entering the civil rights struggle. Regarding the title character of Caroline, the inherent danger of playing someone so unemotional and reticent is that she comes across as unsympathetic, on top of which Tonya Pinkins suffers from vocal problems, at times sounding raspy while straining her voice in the more bluesy tunes.

Be warned, if you are expecting a light-hearted musical, Jeanine Tesori’s music is not your snappy, hummable sort as the tone is more somber and not typically melodic. More “Sweeney Todd” than “West Side Story.” And although Musical Conductor Kimberly Grigsby leads a solid orchestra and the entire production is professionally mounted, from the Choreography of Hope Clarke to George C. Wolfe’s direction, overall it lacks real soul. The musical is more lackluster than impressive and what should inspire, merely depresses. The title itself is confusing. Does Caroline really change or does it refer to the power of currency? It is all a bit unclear. Perhaps the touring company lacks the fire of performing on the actual streets of Broadway. At any rate, the audiences seem to love it as demonstrated by their overwhelmingly positive response and the inevitable Los Angeles standing ovation after every performance.

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