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This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the January 28, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Broadway Review: ‘Caroline or Change’

There’s a lot of singing going on in “Caroline, or Change,” the nearly sung-through musical by Tony Award-winner Tony Kushner (book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (music). The story, filled with racial and social obstructions, is serious to the point of sadness and rather than warming your heart, grabs it and twists it into a Gordian knot.

With that said, I also think “Caroline, or Change” is filled with greatness. The show’s most charming conceit are songs sung by a washing machine, clothes dryer, radio, bus — and even the moon. They wittingly rev up the musical’s autobiographical and political engine, driven in equal parts by Noah Gellman (Harrison Chad), a Jewish boy growing up in Lake Charles, Louisiana, during the early 1960s, and the title character, Caroline (played by Tonya Pinkens), his family’s black maid caught between her own personal bitterness and the increasingly intense civil rights unrest.

Under George C. Wolf’s accomplished, intimately-scaled direction, Kushner’s artfully compacted, two-and-one-half-hour tome (compared to the seven-hours “Angels in America,” and four-hour “Homebody/Kabul”) emerges not only as a thoughtful and unsettling examination of the boy and the maid’s increasingly volatile relationship, but of the endangered feelings and views of their socially separated families.

The musical embellishment of the anthropomorphic characters (a bow, undoubtedly, to illustrator Maurice Sendak, with whom Kushner collaborated on a children’s book “Brundibar”) is a joy as it bridges dream states and reality. They are fancifully and creatively used to augment the generally unsettling and even tragic events. But they also enhance and brighten a world as experienced by the tough, mean, resentful, and opinionated Caroline. This, as she is swept up in the racial turmoil and change happening around her, and its effect on her closest friend, her children, as well as the family she works for.

Above all is the change that threatens the uneasy bond between Carolyn and Noah and has existed ever since Noah’s father Stuart (David Costabile) remarried following the death of his wife, Noah’s mother, from cancer. Unknown to his nervous step-mother Rose (Veanne Cox), who tries but does not seem to know how to reach the boy, is that Noah’s most guilty secret pleasure is getting to light Caroline’s cigaret, as she attends to the laundry in the basement.

Noah’s habit of leaving change in his pockets leads Rose to punish him by letting Caroline keep it. Although the change, mostly quarters, means a lot to Caroline, especially in feeding her three children on her $30 a week salary, it creates a rift between her and Noah, further aggravated by her finding a misplaced $20 bill. The quality of the acting and the singing by a large company is notable. The sheer force of Pinkens’ intensity and rigidity, in her role a 39-year-old divorcee with a son fighting in Vietnam, propels her outstanding performance both vocally and dramatically.

A terrific impression of impetuous youth is created by the young and very talented Chad, as Noah. Cox finds a realistic mix of humor and poignancy to drive Rose’s anxieties, with Costabile offering sturdy support as her nonplused husband. Both Chandra Wilson, as Caroline’s friend Dotty, and Anika Noni Rose, as Caroline’s daughter Emmie, make solid impressions with their progressive commitment to change. Larry Keith puts a lot of punch into his role as Mr. Stopnik, Rose’s Yankee father. His confrontation with Emmie, during the family’s Chanukah celebration, serves to widen the gulf between the Gellmans. There are fine showings by Grandma and Grandpa Gellman (Alice Playton and Reathel Bean) and the Thidobeaux family, that includes sons Jackie (Kevin Ricardo Tate) and Joe (Marcus Carl Franklin).

Although the Gellman family is shown as sympathetic, for obvious reasons, with the social equality and changes that African-Americans are seeking, they are also fearful of change, not surprisingly following the assassination of the President Kennedy.

If the show’s most visionary symbol is the moon (rapturously sung on high by the gauze-enveloped Adriane Lenox), the more whimsically-coded radio takes the form of a Supremes-like girl group in the persons of Tracy Nicole Chapman, Marva Hicks, and Ramona Keller. Capathia Jenkins and Chuck Cooper give a bright human resonance to their comic roles as washer and dryer, respectively. Cooper’s bass voice is heard again, as the rickety old bus for black people.

The bright mobile settings by Ricardo Hernandez expand and contract to create both expansive and intimate spaces as the play, enhanced by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s lighting, moves fluidly from the basement to the living room to the out-of-doors and even into dreams. Paul Tazwell’s costumes have the opportunity to be true to the period as well as take their flights of fancy.

Although the program does not include a song list, Tesori’s expansive score is melodic, vibrant, and eclectic, ranging from neo-operatic to R&B to Klezmer. It far outshines her contributions to “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and is certainly the most impressive new score of the year. The beauty of the score, the overall direction, the orchestrations (the work of Rick Bassett, Joseph Joubert, and Buryl Red), and the musical direction of Linda Twine, enable every word of the libretto to come through clearly.

I only hope, when the show moves to Broadway this spring, it is not ruined with over-amplification. But try to see it before it moves. As a bold new musical, “Caroline, or Change” doesn’t offer its characters solutions, but simply the lesson to accept change when it comes and run with it — without regrets. Four stars.

— Simon Saltzman

Caroline, or Change, Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York. To February 1. Tele-Charge, 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.

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