Sometimes, when I leave performances by TheatreWorks, I wonder whether any theater, anywhere, can do better with that show.
I got that feeling again with "Caroline, Or Change.” Others in the lobby came up with differing opinions, even down to "dislike” but I believe "Caroline, or Change” is destined to become a classic of theater. With book, music and performances, this, likely, is the most impressive production this season anywhere on the Peninsula.
This is called a musical, but it’s really is an operetta that couldn’t have been pulled off if the major performers were not so darn gifted. For all of its historical significance, it never loses touches of its basic humanity and the incidental humor is unexpected and extraordinarily creative.
As Caroline, the African-American maid in the home of the Jewish Gellman family in Lake Charles, La. in 1963, C. Kelly Wright is beyond simple words of compliment. Her power as an actress is almost overshadowed by the extraordinary musicality in her strong singing voice.
Breathing hot on her trail with matching talent is Valisia Lekae as Emmie, her rebellious teenage daughter.
The youngsters in this show are a pure delight. Caroline’s young sons Jackie (Brandon Charles Deadwiler alternating with Evan Stone Green) and Joe (Zendaya Maree Stoermer Coleman alternating with William David Southhall) are little dancing fools, occasionally joined by the Gellman son, Noah (Julian Hornik), Kushner’s alter ego and the protagonist in this tale drawn from his own childhood in Lake Charles.
1963 was in a time of cataclysmic changes, as the civil rights movement was gaining steam and John Kennedy's assassination was shaking up the social structure of the nation.
The reactions in the African-American world were wrenching. Caroline, at age 39, earning only $30 a week, with no advance education, was unsmilingly bitter. With no man in her life anymore, she was hanging on to a past of servitude to support her children. Meanwhile, a friend Dotty (Allison Blackwell), attending college, was adapting to the predominantly white culture of the American south.
At that time, in the African-American communities, the tension was growing between the open rebelliousness of the activist young versus the Gandhi-inspired nonviolent resistance of Dr. Martin Luther King and his followers. Then, there were those, like Caroline, who wanted no trouble and the safer shelter of the status quo. Daughter Emmie, however, was leaning toward open defiance.
The Gellman family, meanwhile, was being caught somewhere between expressions of the liberal traditions of the Northeast and living peacefully in the segregated South.
Noah had adopted Caroline as his surrogate mother after he had lost his own, while she still considered herself his family's maid, who was, now needing to accommodate to Rose (Eileen Tepper), Noah’s rejected stepmother.
Rose, from New York City, was having problems understanding the mores and culture of the South. It was her attempts to reform Noah’s tendency to leave change in his pockets when needing them to be washed that leads her to convince Caroline that she could keep any change she found. This ultimately leads to the break in the deep relationship between Noah and Caroline.
That is the dual significance of the title, cash change and social change.
Others in the story are Noah’s weak father Stuart (Ryan Drummond) who is finding it difficult to adjust to his new relationships and repeatedly retreats from the world to the practicing of his musical instrument.
There are some very clever production touches, in one of which Caroline is kept company in the dark, dank, washing room of house by the Washing Machine (Alison Blackwell), the Radio (three singing and dancing Motown types, Marsha Lawson, Adrienne Muller and Dawn L. Troupe) and the Dryer (James Monroe Iglehart). The Moon (Anise Ritchie) also gets some action here.
The Northern family members who arrive to join in celebrating Chanukah, 1963, are Grandpa and Grandma Gellman (Jesse Caldwell and Roberta J. Morris) and from Rose’s family Mr. Stopnick (Randy Nazarian).
The musical score by Jeanine Tesori is a remarkable interweaving of gospel, Motown and Jewish Klezmer music and it all works, together, and holds the audience.
This is a very moving theatrical experience with a powerful audience reaction.
Since I have so come to expect great direction from Robert Kelley, founder of TheaterWorks, I have been neglectful in not pointing out, again, what a remarkable director he is. I believe, among the best in the land.