DON'T CHANGE A THING, THIS "CAROLINE" IS PERFECT
A seminal event is happening at this very moment in Los Angeles. It is the West Coast premiere of the Tony Kusher/ Jeanine Tesori musical, "Caroline, or Change" at the Ahmanson Theatre. What occurs on stage is a magical, life-changing and life-affirming experience that must be in some way similar to the way people responded when Show Boat, West Side Story and Company appeared on Broadway. In the way that those shows reinvented the musical form, I believe "Caroline, or Change" will go down in the annals of theatre in much the same way.
"Caroline, or Change," takes place in Lake Charles, Louisiana in 1963, just before the assassination of President Kennedy, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. Caroline is the black maid of a Southern Jewish family a father, his new wife, and the man's young son Noah. Since the death of the his mother, Noah has sought solace in the company of Caroline, sitting with her in the basement while she does the laundry much to the disappointment of his stepmother, who is trying to form her own relationship with the boy.
In an attempt to become more of a mother to the boy, the new stepmother tries to teach Noah more about discipline and responsibility. You see, Noah has been leaving his pocket change in his pants when he throws them in the hamper. Distraught that his carelessness will be seen as insensitive to the maid who only make $30 a week, the stepmother tells Caroline that she may keep any money she finds in the laundry for herself. Torn by her pride, which tells her not to take money from a child, and the want to provide a better life for her children, Caroline's dilemma becomes a combustible powder keg that will change everyone in the household.
Caroline, played by Tonya Pinkins, in a performance one can only call genius (more on that later), is herself a microcosm of the country as a whole. As the lyrics remind us "Change come fast, change come slow," and we see this dichotomy in Caroline, who has great pride and rightly so but finds it in conflict with her role as that of a servant.
Caroline spends most of her time in the only basement in Lake Charles, which is an escape, as well as a prison for the maid. When we first meet Caroline she sings, "Nothing ever happen underground in Louisiana/ Cause there ain't no underground in Louisiana/ There is only Underwater" And the description is accurate, for Caroline herself is underwater struggling to make ends meet, a divorcee with a child in Vietnam, not to mention three other at home. Her life has been a constant struggle, and sadly, the underground tomb where she does her washing and drying, is also the only place she can be herself, without the dutiful façade of the maid dancing and singing along with the radio.
The change in the pockets of the boy's pants become an allegory for the greater movement of change in the world, and how change can bring both hope and despair. One of the most powerful moments in the musical comes when the bus Caroline and her friend Dottie are waiting for arrives late, explaining with sadness that President Kennedy has been shot. In his brief, soulful soliloquy, the bus expresses the despair he feels for this great loss, as this President epitomized hope, and with hope, a better life for all.
What is sad about this, today, is that in the current political environment of our country, so many people - like Caroline - are so fearful of change that they reject it outright. But with that rejection of change, comes the death of hope for the status quo is just that a perpetual state of the constant. What is tragic and ironic about this musical, based in the early 1960's, is that the characters that inhabit the world of "Caroline" are more progressive, hopeful and open to change then people seem to be today. While those in the 60's gave their lives and fought for change, today our country is fighting change and actually regressing be it through gay marriage or stem cell research. One can only hope that we can learn something from the characters in this musical.
Luckily for Caroline, she does learns that her sadness today does not mean she is destined to a life of despair. In fact, she is a vessel of change, whether she knows it or not, through her daughter, Emmie, who sees a better life for herself, one in which she can own her own home, have a car with a heater, and not feel as though she is inferior to anyone, white or black.
This musical, however, would not be as moving were it not for the incredible talents of the creative team Tony Kushner, who wrote the book and lyrics, Jeanine Tesori, who wrote the music, and the director, George C. Wolfe, the director. As he did with Angels in America, Kushner has revolutionized the world of musical lyrics, with a sense of poetry and opera to even the most common of phrases. His ability to not only create fully realized characters, complete with their own pathos, history, emotions, pains and pleasures, but at the same time propelling the story forward, is unparalleled in musicals today.
Tesori, meanwhile, has given us a history of music, with an original blend of jazz, blues, soul, Dixieland, and even Christmas and Hanukah songs that, even though we know the form, we have never quite experienced in the way she delivers.
These two artists have perhaps created one of the best collaborations I will ever experience in my life. The way they have created such a comprehensive and in-depth world in a sung-through musical is unparalleled. Even if the cast simply spoke their words as dialogue, it would still be a moving and monumental evening of theatre. But, luckily for us, they did write music and lyrics, and in doing so, did the world of musical theatre an honor.
In addition, George C. Wolfe should view this as a highpoint of his career, and even if he never did another thing in the world of theatre today, we would be lucky to point to this one accomplishment and be thankful for his vision and passion in bringing this tale to life. The way in which he has brought to life inanimate objects envisioned by Mr. Kushner, from the washing machine to the radio, the bus to the moon, is imaginative and touching, infusing them with their own soul which breaks your heart just as easily as any of the living, flesh-covered characters on stage.
Where it not for the incredible performances of the cast, though, the power of the creative trio's hard work would be unrealized. Luckily, in this production of "Caroline, or Change," many of the original cast members, both from it's first run at the Public Theatre, and subsequent Broadway run, return to bring these flawed and hopeful, tragic and inspiring lives to life.
While it would be unfair to single out anyone performance, for each was awe-inspiring in its own way, it would be a crime to neglect to mention Tonya Pinkins' Tony-nominated portrayal of the title character. Her character on stage is more alive than most of us are in our daily lives. Never once do you ever think it is an actress on stage Ms. Pinkins is Caroline and Caroline is Ms. Pinkins. There is no delineation between the two, so compelling and seamless is her performance. When she sings "Lot's Wife" an eleventh hour number I think rivals, if not surpasses, "Rose's Turn" from Gypsy, it is so heartbreaking, wrenching, poignant, and affecting, the audience was moved to tears.
The same could be said of Tony Winner Anika Noni Rose, who plays Caroline's daughter Emmie. She too, is mesmerizing, and gives so much of herself to the character, that I would be willing to follow her character into battle if she only asked.
Paula Newsome as Dotty Moffett, fellow maid and friend of Caroline, Veanne Cox as Rose (Noah's stepmother), Chuck Cooper as the bus/dryer, Benjamin Platt as Noah, Capathia Jenkins as the washer, and Tracy Nicole Chapman, Marva Hicks and Kenna Ramsey as the radio, all deserve accolades, praise and our appreciation for their inspired performances. In fact, every cast member should be proud of their work, for each person adds another layer of complexity and humanity that the world of "Caroline" could not exist without.
For any lover of theatre, "Caroline, or Change" is a must see piece. In today's marketplace, where the songs of ABBA, QUEEN, or the latest screenplay provide the creative inspiration for musicals, "Caroline, or Change," is a revolutionary and truly original show, without equal in the world of musical theatre in the past twenty-five years. It's a shame that it closed on Broadway, for it deserves to be seen by audiences for years to come. Luckily, you have until December 26th, 2004 to catch this historic and significant piece. I feel honored and privileged to have experienced this enthralling opus one can only call a masterpiece.
"Caroline, or Change" with book and lyrics by Tony Kusher, Music by Jeanine Tesori and direction by George C. Wolfe, is currently playing at the Amhanson Theatres at the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles, through December 26th, 2004. Performances Tuesday Saturday @ 8pm, and Sunday @ 7:30pm (except Nov. 21 & Dec. 19), with matinee performances Saturday @ 2:00pm. Additional performances on Thurs., Nov. 18, Thurs, Dec. 16th. Weds, Dec. 22 and Thurs, Dec. 23 @ 2pm and Monday, Dec. 20 @ 8pm. No performance on Thanksgiving Day (Nov. 25), Christmas Eve (Dec. 24) or Christmas Day (Dec. 25). Tickets available at the Ahmanson Theatre Box Office, by phone at 213-628-2772, or online at www.TaperAhmanson.com.