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BWW Review: CAROLINE, OR CHANGE at Round House Theatre

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When I saw CAROLINE, OR CHANGE on Broadway in 2004, it became clear to me that there was something special and a little bit different about it compared to the slew of other contemporary musicals that entered into the commercial theatre landscape around that same time. Featuring Jeanine Tesori's most complex, intricate, and stylistically varied music to date; the esteemed Tony Kushner's intelligent book and lyrics; and a tremendous cast, I was immediately captivated. I've seen the show done regionally a number of times since that Broadway production. While the Round House production doesn't pack the emotional wallop of the original, it fares quite well in many areas.

First let's, of course, talk about Nova Y. Payton as Caroline Thibodeaux, the weary, but strong African American maid who dutifully serves the Gellman household in 1960s Lake Charles, Louisiana. Ms. Payton has nearly always been regarded as an extremely talented vocalist in the many productions she's done around town, starting with her professional area debut in Signature Theatre's Hairspray. Yet, I don't think I've ever witnessed her connect so clearly to the lyrics in any song - since her debut - as she does in this production. We can certainly point to her second act aria "Lot's Wife" as evidence of her fulfilling the vocal and emotional demands of this role - and it is something quite stunning. The quiet, but intentional way she navigates Caroline's dilemmas in the Gellman household and the arc she builds for her character is also quite impressive. As Caroline remembers tough moments in her past - such as an abusive relationship and the death of her oldest son Larry in Vietnam - while doing laundry, her pain is evident through Nova's performance.

(The Washing Machine, well-voiced by Theresa Cunningham, helps bring about these moments of recollection. The Dryer, hauntingly voiced by V. Savoy Mcllwain, also provides social commentary of a different sort. The Moon, sung by Delores King Williams, and the Radio - voiced by Felicia Curry, Olivia Russell, and Kara-Tameika Watkins - also adds its own perspective on a variety of issues and situations.)

Through Caroline's experience, we get to know the Gellman family, including father Stewart (Will Gartshore), stepmother Rose Stopnick Gellman (Dorea Schmidt), young sad, Caroline-adoring son Noah (Griffin McChahill, trying his best in a difficult singing and acting role), and Grandma and Grandpa (Naomi Jacobson and John Lescault). Tensions abound in this household. Rose - a NYC transplant - tries to adapt to Southern life and care for a child still reeling from the loss of her mother. Stewart hides from reality, preferring the solace of playing his beloved clarinet (his late wife played the bassoon). Schmidt, while appearing slightly too young for the role, does a tremendous job in not only singing it, but navigating Rose's new reality, including figuring out the best way to interact with Caroline who couldn't be more different from her. She always appears at the verge of a breakdown, but keeps it all in. Gartshore's brooding presence works for the character. Jacobson and Lescault bring an abundance of humor to their roles.

We also get to know Caroline's kids. Emmie (Korinn Walfall) is the oldest, and then there's Jackie (Elijah Mayo), and little Joe (Micah Tate, Ms. Payton's adorable son). Caroline does her best to provide for them on her meager $30/week salary, but it's not enough. Emmie, in particular, wants more out of life - and not just materially - a sentiment that's well conveyed in Ms. Walfall's exceptional performance. When Rose becomes annoyed with Noah's habit of leaving change in his pockets in the laundry, she tells Caroline she can keep the change. Caroline experiences a dilemma to "take pennies from a baby" or use the money to better her kids' lives. This crisis reaches a peak when Noah leaves a $20 bill in his pocket, which has a number of consequences for all involved. Caroline's friend Dotty (the wonderful Awa Sal Secka) - who is also a maid, albeit one with a sunnier disposition and more hope - illuminates this for Caroline, who ultimately returns to the Gellman household.

The jazz, blues, operatic, and musical theatre influences in Tesori's score are part of what makes this show so unique and so special. A visible ten-piece orchestra, conducted by Jon Kalbfleisch, brings out the best of the beautiful music. Grant Wilcoxen's lighting design and Fitz Patton's sound design also go a long way to establish the mood and complement the material quite nicely. Only Jason Sherwood's set is a slight misstep. While the rotating Gellman house is a thing of beauty, it probably isn't very conducive to allowing the entire audience to see what's happening onstage at all times due to its placement and design. Director/Choreographer Matthew Gardiner has done a great job pacing the show (probably more so than George C. Wolfe on Broadway) and navigating its complexities on a substantive level. However, I wish he chose to utilize more of Round House's enormous stage.

Still, these missteps aside, the material speaks for itself and gives the cast - and especially Nova Y. Payton - a chance to stretch their limits.

Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one intermission.

CAROLINE, OR CHANGE plays at Round House Theatre - 4545 East-West Highway in Bethesda, Maryland - through February 26, 2017. For tickets, call the box office at 240-644-1100 or purchase them online.

Photo Caption/Credit: Nova Y. Payton (Caroline Thibodeaux) and Korinn Walfall (Emmie Thibodeaux) pictured; by Grace Toulotte.


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