November 22, 2004
by Rob Kendt
Musical theater's fuel is big, world-stopping emotion: the joy of new love, the pang of fresh heartbreak, the resilient hope of the cockeyed optimist.
Anger is a less common shade in the Broadway palette; you'll see the momentary fit of pique ("I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair") or paranoia ("Getting Married Today"), a sneer ("Officer Krupke") or a soul-wrench (Carousel's "Soliloquy"). For sheer existential rage, the kind of savage breast-beating not even music can calm, only Sweeney Todd and Ragtime's Coalhouse Walker Jr. come close, and neither reach the point of murderous extremity until fate kicks them to the curb.
In the ravishing, and ravaging, new musical Caroline, or Change, at the Ahmanson Theatre, black maid Caroline Thibodeaux (the incomparable Tonya Pinkins) starts the show mad, seething in a sweltering Louisiana basement circa 1963. She never gets over it. Instead, like the washing machine she dutifully loads, Caroline goes through spin cycles of wrath and irritation. She only comes clean at the show's heartrending climax, a "Rose's Turn"-style soliloquy in which she pleads with God not to let her anger make her evil. This is new--a re-imagining of the musical not in terms of form, which playwright Tony Kushner and composer Jeanine Tesori play with freely and dexterously, but in terms of what a musical can contain, how much weight it can bear.
In telling the autobiographical story of a young Jewish boy, Noah Gellman (Sy Adamowsky, who alternates with Ben Platt), who learns a complicated lesson in class, race and economic oppression from Caroline, his family's bitter domestic, Kushner manages an astonishing feat of heartfelt hindsight. He sets the ebullient, transgressive wonder of childhood curiosity on a collision course with some hard-edged adult realities and doesn't flinch from the inevitable crash, or try to tidy up the wreckage.
The show's final hopeful notes are tenuous indeed: Noah is too young to understand what his confrontation with Caroline might mean, but we leave knowing that some kind of understanding (or at least a great musical) is in his future, just as we know that Caroline's three children, particularly the proud Emmie (Anika Noni Rose), can only hold their heads high because they've rejected their mother's corrosive defeatism.
As terrible as a load-bearing musical may sound--isn't that what opera's for?--the great news about Caroline, or Change is that it's a full-service entertainment. Tesori's restless, accomplished score is an able partner in the storytelling and characterization: Caroline has her own strange, gripping blues idiom, which she plays off a gallery of glittering personifications of her washer (Capathia Jenkins), dryer (Chuck Cooper) and radio (the shimmering girl group of Tracy Nicole Chapman, Marva Hicks, and Kenna Ramsey). Her kids (Rose, Leon G. Thomas III and Corwin Tuggles) sing infectious schoolyard-rhyme pop that's a cousin to Noah's tuneful, openhearted parlando. Noah's distant father (David Costabile) sings in plaintive tones that echo his clarinet playing, while his tetchy stepmom (Veanne Cox) has a steely, sunny tone belied by her music's awkward dissonance.
There's also a priceless, hora-infused Chanukah scene with Noah's grandparents (Larry Keith, Alice Playten, Reathel Bean) that encapsulates mid-century Jewish Americana with the sort of wicked but warm-hearted humor only an insider could pull off.
Riccardo Hernandez's simple, shape-shifting set and the often stark lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer have the right rough magic for the musical's free, unbounded mix of the real and the dreamlike. Not everything in director George C. Wolfe's production works so well: While I liked the conceit of the personified appliances, and a haunting, death-like city bus played by Cooper, the introduction of a motherly, benedictory moon (Aisha de Haas) feels a misstep into generic symbolism. Additionally, a few of Kushner's otherwise mostly deft lyrics veer into forced-rhyme doggerel.
But there are few such bum notes in this bittersweet Caroline. Steered by the unblinking Pinkins, this is a rare Broadway vehicle indeed: a musical with genuine tragic dimensions and a catchy heartbeat.
Caroline, or Change plays through Dec. 26 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., (213) 628-2772 or taperahmanson.com.