Challenging Musical 'Caroline, Or Change' At Center Stage
Last year when I read that E. Faye Butler would be starring in the leading role of Caroline, or Change I was filled with anticipation. When I saw her performance in this role at the Court Theatre in Chicago getting national recognition in the magazine "The Week" (October 24, 2008 issue p. 24) it confirmed the reasons why. She is a consummate performer in a role that seems to be written for her. If her name sounds familiar, many Baltimoreans remember her in Trouble in Mind, Once on This Island, Ain't Misbehavin', and Dinah Was. Last year, she received a Helen Hayes Award for her performance in the Signature's Saving Aimee.
I had seen the Broadway production back in 2004 which was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Musical. While I remember fondly the Tony-winning performance of Anika Noni Rose as Emmie Thibodeaux, the show did nothing for me. It also won the Olivier Award for Best New Musical at London's National Theatre.
Well, how things have changed with this production directed by David Schweizer (remember his fabulous Center Stage production of Boys from Syracuse?) He has assembled a superb cast and a clever set (Allen Moyer designer.)
But it all begins with Butler (an Associate Artist at Center Stage) who has to contain her amazing comedic talents and personality into this complex role as a maid working in the basement of a Jewish family in 1963 in Lake Charles, LA. This was a turbulent time in the nation and Tony Kushner's book (he also did the lyrics to the music of Jeanine Tesori now represented on Broadway with Shrek) utilizes issues such as the civil rights movement, civil disobedience, and the deaths of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King along with religious conflicts between Jews and Blacks. There's a lot in there and once again the Center Stage program is loaded with historical information to assist with background information about the era.
Also stunning is Kelly McCreary (Caroline's daughter) who I saw in the fabulous Broadway production of Passing Strange.
The play is similar to the PBS' "Upstairs, Downstairs". The Gellmans are a Jewish family led by Stuart Gellman (Joe Hickey) whose wife passed away. Gellman used to play duets with his late wife on the bassoon, but he's playing solo now. He remarries a close friend from New York Rose Stopnick (Trisha Rapier in a tough role). Similarly to Last Night at Ballyhoo and the musical Parade, the issue of a northern Jew adjusting to life in the south is addressed. She says, "Down here they (the Jews) play Bingo just like the Goyim".
These days so much theater seems to depend on young actors. Playing the bored and forgotten eight year-old son of the Gellmans is Noah (double cast by Matthew Demitrides and J. Bradley Bowers) whose relationship with Caroline is the centerpiece of the show. I've seen Demitrides twice and believe he has a great future ahead of him. He does the Chanukah blessings in Hebrew like a pro.
In an amazing bit of casting, Hickey ACTUALLY plays the clarinet. Hickey informed me he brought his clarinet to his audition and director Schweizer hoped to find an actor who could really play. This could be the only production ever done where Stuart Gellman actually plays the clarinet and he does a great job.
This is really a modern opera rather than a typical Broadway musical theater spectacle. Thankfully Center Stage has a great pit orchestra. The players consist of Wayne Barker (piano and conducting), Matt Belzer (clarinet), Chris Hofer (bass), Bob LaForce (percussion) and Phil McCusker (guitar).
Did I forget to mention the singing washing machine (Danielle Lee Greaves), the singing dryer and bus conductor (Milton Craig Nealy who comes from the original Broadway cast), the singing moon (Renn Woods) and the singing radio (Ta'Rea Campbell, Adrienne Muller, and April Nixon?)
Caroline's children are well cast with Roland Haywood and Brett Johnson (Joe) and Aaron Bell (Jackie) along with the stunning McCreary as Emmie.
Libya Pugh plays Dottie Moffett who like Caroline works hard as a maid while going to college.
You will not leave the theater singing melodies but you will leave the theater impressed with this production and talking about Caroline and her life.
The production runs through January 18, 2009 (interestingly the night before Martin Luther King Day). For tickets, 410-332-0033 or visit www.centerstage.org.
I wish I could attend the Special New Year's Eve performance that features post-show live music, a champagne toast and desserts. And for Broadwayworld readers, get a $10 discount using promotion code "2009".
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Photos by Michael Brosilow