BWW Review: Iyona Blake Shines in CAROLINE, OR CHANGE at Creative Cauldron
Change takes many forms in CAROLINE, OR CHANGE: dramatic historical change, personal change, pocket change. The word itself is used frequently in Tony Kushner's Tony-nominated musical, which takes place in 1963 amidst the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Matt Conner directs Creative Cauldron's production, an apt choice given the piece's enduring thematic significance and a phenomenal turn by Iyona Blake as the unflappable Caroline Thibodeaux.
Semi-autobiographical, CAROLINE, OR CHANGE incorporates diverse musical influences and zooms in on personal experiences rather than high-profile events, showing how historical change affects specific people's everyday lives. In Lake Charles, Louisiana, Caroline is a divorced African-American housemaid living out endless days in the Gellman family's sweltering basement, doing their laundry while listening to the radio. From her very first note, Blake demands attention and dominates the stage. Her voice lends a powerful emotional authenticity to the story and seems magnified by the intimate performance space.
The set and costume design (Margie Jervis) and lighting (Lynn Joslin) transform the Gellmans' basement into the world as Caroline sees it, complete with personified household appliances. The Washing Machine (Awa Sal Secka) lights up and sways in rhythm, and the torturous but charismatic electric Dryer (Malcolm Lee) turns up the heat to an unbearable level. The Radio consists of a trio of female singers (Kara-Tameika Watkins, DeAndriea Norman, and Tiffany Byrd) harmonizing to Motown choreography and reflecting on the state of Caroline's life. Secka also plays the ethereal Moon, watching over Lake Charles with rich-voiced lullabies.
A friendship develops between Caroline and Noah (Ethan Van Slyke), the Gellman family's only son, who grieves the loss of his mother but reveres Caroline despite (or perhaps because of) her open anger and frustration. By contrast, Noah's reserved father Stuart, played by Harv Lester, is a clarinetist who lacks engagement in his son's life. Lester conveys this distance but reveals underlying feelings in vulnerable moments. Stuart's new wife, Rose Stopnick (Carli Smith), is comically uptight and struggles to find her footing as Noah's stepmother. Smith's portrayal is buoyant yet sympathetic, commanding laughter and pity in equal measure.
It is Rose who devises a new rule to discourage Noah from leaving coins in the pockets of his dirty clothes: any change Caroline finds in the laundry, she is allowed to keep. Caroline is torn as she realizes what a difference pocket change could have in the lives of her three children, but is uncomfortable "taking pennies from a baby." The Thibodeaux children face changes of their own in a plot line that grows in importance. Caroline's eldest child Emmie (Tiara Whaley) rebels agains her mother and longs to transcend her humble background.
Jeanine Tesori's score is demanding, but musical director Walter "Bobby" McCoy has skillfully adapted the instrumentation for the small stage. The band carries out the many reed parts with grace and ease. The cast's vocal harmonies sparkle when they come together but fall a little flat when they don't. This production's most significant flaw is that many of the actors, though talented, don't quite rise up to Blake's level of vocal excellence.
In the end, CAROLINE, OR CHANGE is truly a showcase for Blake's stunning talent, as if the title role were tailor-made for her. This production is at its best when she's front and center, shining.
Running time: approximately 2 hours, with one 15-minute intermission.
CAROLINE, OR CHANGE plays through May 29th, 2016, at Creative Cauldron at ArtSpace Falls Church, 410 South Maple Avenue, Falls Church, VA 22046. Tickets can be purchased on www.creativecauldron.org or by calling 703-436-9948.
Photo: From left - Malcolm Lee as the Dryer and Iyona Blake as Caroline Thibodeaux; photo courtesy of Keith Waters, Kx Photography.