Phenomenal soulful singing commands the stage at Omaha Community Playhouse in Caroline or Change, the complex musical wrapping-up its stay on March 20th. The astonishing depth of talent of the African-American singers of the cast makes the visit unforgettable, while the rest of the cast’s vocal skills always remain strong.
This extraordinary theatre piece was conceived by composer Jeanine Tesori and playwright Tony Kushner. Kushner’s Angels in America won him a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award. That and Caroline or Change from ten years later have many things in common. Both vibrate with trenchant, eloquent words. They dig deeply into the characters and lives of people struggling against being outside the mainstream of American society. And the staging calls for fascinating uses of non-realistic theatrical devices.
Caroline’s first act comes vividly alive with Tesori’s intense score, an intensity that underscores Caroline’s feeling overpowered by her circumstances. Meanwhile Kushner’s lyrics do a remarkable, clear-cut job of exposition about relationships. More intricate texts personify five unusual figures serving something like the role of a collective Greek chorus. They are The Washing Machine, The Dryer, The Radio, The Moon and The Bus. Grasping their words may not be easy as they fly by, pulsate, swirl, declaim and multiply, so it’s helpful to know that they mostly comment on or amplify what Caroline is thinking.
Having been immersed in all that, the second act’s developments should seem clearer. Also Tesori’s music there has more variety and subtlety, even some gentleness. Throughout, she imaginatively calls forth such influences as 1940s pop, jazz, klezmer and traditional chorales, even a touch of Mozart.
What transpires concerns Caroline’s life. She is a 39-year-old black housemaid in 1963 for a Jewish family in Lake Charles, Louisiana. (FYI: That part of the state is amid lakes and a river and is one of the most humid cities in the U.S.) That environment has a bearing on Caroline’s situation, which seems to revolve around running water through clothes and trying to dry them out. She works for the Gellmans where young Noah seeks to bond with her, seeing her as almost a mother figure, his having died. Caroline has her own children and not enough money to support them. Noah’s stepmother, Rose, tries to teach Noah thrift, to be more careful with loose coins and tells Caroline that she can keep any that she finds in the boy’s clothes. Caroline’s pride delays taking the money, but need overwhelms her reluctance. Then a $20 bill, accidently getting into the exchange, upends relationships.
The story emerges on multiple levels, even as the Gellman house has a dark underside, a dank basement where Caroline spends much of her time. Symbols abound. And, in the time it takes place, the outside world is altering. Kennedy is assassinated; black people’s ally in the White House is gone. Caroline’s friend, Dotty, another black servant, seeks upward mobility by going to night school. And Caroline’s daughter Emmie begins to feel the need for racial assertiveness. Two potentially empowered women. Not only the coins are change. Caroline’s inured ways of dealing with her place in society are shaken.
Eschelle Childers’ dynamic singing as Caroline remains a mighty foundation for unceasing depth of meaning, vocally and dramatically. Bow to her forceful presence. Danny Denenberg has lovable, vulnerable naturalness as Noah, always in tune with the sound and the quality of the character. And, in the roles of The Dryer and The Bus, Nik Whitcomb’s resonant tone make you believe in the power of those machines.
Director Susan Baer Collins has staged everything both meaningfully and naturally, reflections of reality and of fantasy. All of the cast also moves fluently through choreographer Melanie Walters’ unforced steps. Moreover Amanda Fehlner’s costumes add to the impression of a production full of professional polish and personality.
Kushner acquired significant fame with Angels in America. He’s the author of 20 other stage scripts, among them: Henry Box Brown (or the Mirror of Slavery), A Bright Room Called Day and adaptations of works by Brecht, Corneille and Goethe. Kushner also wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s award-winning 2012 film Lincoln. And, in 2013, Kushner received a National Medal of Arts from President Obama. Plus, interestingly, he grew up in Lake Charles in a home with an African American maid. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Kushner
Jeannine Tesori recently garnered a Tony Award for her score for Home, now on Broadway in its ninth hit month. She’s been up for four other Tonys and is regarded as the most prolific and honored female theatrical composer in history. She also wrote songs for Shrek The Musical, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and Violet. www.masterworksbroadway.com/artist/jeanine-tesori/
Witnessing this exceptional experience you’ll no doubt realize anew Kushner and Tesori’s brilliant imaginations. And you’ll have another reason to be aware that Omaha continues to have amazing talent: performers with careers at other stages.
Caroline or Change is performed through -Mar. 20 at Howard Drew Theatre, Omaha Community Playhouse, 6915 Cass St. Thurs.-Sat.: 7:30 p.m. Sunday: 2 p.m. Tickets $25-$40. www.OmahaPlayhouse.org