Troupe opens new show and offers area premiere of Tony-winning ‘Caroline, or Change’
‘Caroline or Change’: Music by Jeanine Tesori, book and lyrics by Tony Kushner. Directed and choreographed by Jim Weaver. Reviewed Jan. 11, Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe Donelly Theatre, 1012 N. Orange Ave., Sarasota. Through Feb. 16. 941-366-1505; westcoastblacktheatre.org
In some ways the musical “Caroline, or Change” is a perfect show to open the newly renovated Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s Gerri Aaron and the Aaron Family Foundation Theatre Building.
The ambitious, intellectually stimulating and touching musical is all about change and growth. That suits the status of a company that has emerged from its modest, nomadic beginnings to become an integral part of Sarasota’s arts scene, now with the comfortable Donelly Theatre as a new home for performances.
As audiences are introduced to the new building, they also get to see the area premiere of a musical that is about to be revived on Broadway this winter 15 years after its premiere.
It brings back local favorite Jannie Jones in a role that allows her to show new depths of her impressive dramatic and vocal range. Jones plays a bitter and angry African-American maid in 1963 Lake Charles, Louisiana, where she works for a Jewish family going through its own transitions. The recent death of Betty Gellman has disrupted the family’s life. Stuart Gellman has remarried his wife’s best friend, Rose, who tries to bring calm to her distant and reclusive husband and his 8-year-old son, Noah, who thinks of Caroline as a surrogate mother.
Caroline is not interested in getting emotionally attached. She has enough problems dealing with racial hatred and the disappearance of her abusive husband, who left her alone to care for their four children.
Set around the time of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the musical touches on the emergence of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his non-violent approach to civil rights. It also raises parallels with the anti-Semitism and hatred faced by the Jewish community.
It is mostly sung, almost like a theatrical opera, with a score by Jeanine Tesori that captures a wide range of styles and sounds, from doo wop and Motown to klezmer, gospel and ethereal tones. Those songs are set to a book and lyrics by Tony Kushner that, on the surface, deal with the mundane events of Caroline’s world, but also allow the characters to delve into bigger personal and national issues, from loneliness and isolation to changing political views.
The music is not always easy to fully appreciate on first hearing and sometimes the wailing sounds of the singers make it hard to fully understand the lyrics. But you should be able to capture the gist of what they’re saying as the cast fairly glows with energy and spirit under the direction of Jim Weaver and the musical direction by Nikki Ervin.
Jones radiates life and anguish. Caroline rarely smiles and struggles to communicate with the Gellmans. She lashes out at Noah’s attempts at friendship and compassion, and at her teenage daughter who takes a more modern approach to standing up for herself. Caroline eventually breaks down in the powerful solo “Lot’s Wife,” in which she touches on the roots of her behavior, seeks forgiveness and attempts to restart her life.
Jones is joined by a strong cast that includes founding troupe member Teresa Stanley, looking regal and elegant as The Moon, who sings about change and promise as she casts a glow over those below. The Washing Machine (Vallea E. Woodbury) and The Dryer (Brian L. Boyd) become characters in Caroline’s inner monologues and the two performers capture her thoughts and shifting moods in their songs. They are aided by the musical trio of Toddra Brunson, Annaya Osborn and Stephanie Zandra, who sing varying styles as The Radio, a kind of Greek chorus of commentators.
As Noah, Tommy Lelyo (who alternates in the role with Charles Shoemaker), is full of youthful spirit. He seeks the kind of attention and support he misses from his mother, and won’t yet allow it from Eliza Engle, who is full of compassion as Rose, looking for a way to connect. As Stuart, Courtney Dease doesn’t have a lot to do but look mournful, until he finally explains his retreat in a particularly heart-break musical moment.
Alexis Ijeoma Nwokoji plays Caroline’s teenage daughter, Emmie with a sense of both respect and rebellion as she tries to break through her mother’s hardened shell, as does Caroline’s friend, Dotty (played with spirit by Candy McLellan). John Lombardi provides some fireworks as Rose’s politically vibrant father, a sharp contrast to the more restrained attitudes of Stuart’s parents, played by Fred Frabotta and Linda Roeming.
The production is staged on an effective multi-level set by Michael Newton-Brown that depicts the framework of the Gellman house, with Noah’s bedroom upstairs and the laundry in the basement. Costumes by Patricia Vandenberg clearly establish the time and class status of the different characters while adding a glittery edge for the singing “objects,” which take on new colors with Michael Pasquini’s lighting.
Ervin’s off-stage five-member band touches on the many moods of Tesori’s score, providing just the right amount of support without becoming overwhelming.
Those who have been following the troupe’s progress over the last two decades, however, may feel a bit overwhelmed with emotion, watching this often powerful show come to fluid life in a beautiful new home.