Sunday, September 21, 2008

Caroline, or Change; Karamu Performing Arts Center

(Sheffia Randall Dooley as Caroline)

One reason children are continually intriguing, other than the fact that they’re reliably and rather adorably fun-sized, is that they can see through adult artifice in roughly five attoseconds. This in part explains why kids are often drawn to large people who don’t behave in programmatic grown-up ways (see: Pee-Wee Herman or the wino you pass on the street).

Or, for a much better example, take eight-year-old Noah Gellman who, in Caroline, or Change, attaches himself to the ever-frowning family maid who labors primarily in the basement of their comfortable Louisiana home, doing the laundry. Their relationship, based on her refusal to condescend to him as a child, is the motive force behind this engrossing show, given a stellar staging in a co-production by Dobama and Karamu theatres.

Blessed with an essentially flawless cast, rich accompaniment led by musical director Ed Ridley, and the smart, sharp, empathetic guidance of director Sarah May, this is simply a theatrical event not to be missed.

With book and lyrics by Pulitzer prize winner Tony Kushner, who wrote Angels in America, Parts I and II among other seminal works, Caroline bristles with intelligence and a defiant attitude. Even though there are many issues brought up in this piece, set in 1963, that could easily lend themselves to maudlin Broadway sentimentality—race relations!, economic inequality! the assassination of JFK!—the mostly sung-through script never goes for the easy sniffle or tear.

Instead, the characters often keep themselves at a distance from each other, and from the audience, inviting us to fill in the emotional gaps. Meanwhile, Kushner’s telling words are put through a musical Mixmaster, scored by Jeanine Tesori, that blends soulful blues, the infectious driving beat of Motown, along with classical and spiritual touches.

As if that isn’t enough theatricality for one evening, there is also a layer of magical realism as we hear the saucy washing machine (Ayeshah Douglas), the clothes dryer (a basso Darryl Lewis) and the radio (a Supremes-like trio of Katrice Monee Headd, Stacey Arielle Wallace and Taresa Willingham) speak to Caroline and comment on her situation. And, there’s even an omniscient singing moon (Rebecca Morris) overseeing the proceedings.

In terms of storyline, it’s a deceptively simple tale of a Southern Jewish family and the cultural divide that existed in the 1960s (and still does, to some degree, today). Noah has recently lost his mother to cancer and has not bonded at all with his stepmother Rose or his insular musician father Stuart. So Noah spends time in the basement laundry room, drawn to Caroline’s scowling strength. But he keeps leaving change in his pants pockets when he throws them in the hamper, which Caroline collects in a bleach cup so she can return it to him.

When Rose suggests that Caroline keep the change, to teach Noah a lesson, Caroline feels her honor compromised. As a result, the center cannot hold and relationships change (pun intended by the authors) in unforeseen ways. This extends to Noah’s grandparents as well as Caroline’s three children: older daughter Emmie and the boys Jackie and Joe.

As Caroline, Sheffia Randall Dooley turns in a tour de force portrayal by never releasing her grip on this often unlikable character, Presenting a weary, doleful visage that could curdle milk at 20 paces, Dooley manages to expose the vulnerable, beating heart underneath this standoffish woman. And she simply brings down the house when called upon to sing the blues.

And the rest of the 17-person cast is, amazingly, just as good whether singing or speaking. Young Christian Flaherty as Noah has a loose naturalness on stage that many actors spend years trying to acquire, and he is believable at every moment. Playing his step-mom Rose, Katherine DeBoer is perfect as this well-intentioned but slightly uptight woman, trying to connect to both Noah and Caroline and only being seen as the enemy. And Ron Cuirle, Hester Lewellen, Robert McCoy and Michael Rogan fill out the family splendidly as, respectively, Noah’s father, grandmother, grandfather, and Rose’s fire-breathing political activist father.

Caroline’s family is enhanced by the performances of three entirely captivating kids. Alexis Generette Floyd’s Emmie is a lot more than cute, showing her mother’s strength even as she indicates a more positive approach to the world. And Justin Peck and Aric Generette Floyd, as her two younger brothers, help her deliver a show-stopping song and dance routine.

This is likely not a play sure to suit everyone’s tastes. For instance, when Caroline jettisons her friendship with old pal Dotty (an excellent Colleen Longshaw), some may be longing for a different kind of change in this snarky woman.

But this is exciting, unpredictable and engrossing theater. And a round of emphatic huzzahs to Dobama artistic director Joyce Casey and Karamu artistic director Terrence Spivey for bringing it off.

Caroline, or Change
Through October 12 at
Karamu Performing Arts Center,
2355 E. 89th St., 216-795-7077

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