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In a time of change

Times Staff Writer

At last, a musical, a big ticket musical, a big ticket Broadway musical not by Sondheim, a big ticket Broadway musical not by Sondheim at the Ahmanson Theatre that means something, that’s important, that demands attention, that says, yes, the musical is not dead, has not been entirely consumed by a bloated, creativity-smothering, Disney-occupied, tourist-coddling culture of a no-longer-great Great White Way.

“Caroline, or Change” is that important, big, meaningful musical not by Sondheim that demands your attention.

And it isn’t even based upon a trite movie.

Sure, “The Producers” and “Hairspray” are entertaining, and “The Lion King” has its occasional moments of genuinely brilliant stagecraft. Sure enough, “Caroline, or Change” tries hard at times to be entertaining as well. But the trying too hard in George C. Wolfe’s staging is the show’s principal trivializing weakness. That and the cheap tricks coming out of the sound booth.

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But enough. “Caroline, or Change” has something to say, and, through a lyrical, witty and deeply moving text by Tony Kushner and effective music by Jeanine Tesori, says it. It says it, moreover, in the way only a full-blown Broadway musical can, but in a way the full-blown Broadway musical rarely dares these days.

It comes as little surprise, given the near operatic language of Kushner’s “Angels in America” and “Homebody/Kabul,” that he can write words for song. But what may come as a surprise is just how close music is to Kushner’s theatrical heart. In this autobiographical story about growing up in Louisiana, the story of a young Jewish boy and his awkward relationship with his family’s black maid during a time of racial friction, Kushner clearly needs music to capture not just the inner life of confused characters but also to convey the force of the times, the compelling vigor with which culture impinged on all levels and aspects of society.

The washing machine and dryer sing. So do the radio, a bus and the moon. They sing not because it’s a cute thing to do, this being a musical about a boy and all. They sing because there is a vitality in the lives of these characters, a vitality that vibrates throughout the environment.

The year is 1963. These are bright times. President Kennedy has embraced social justice and progress. Integration in the segregated South is finally recognized as an unstoppable force.

These are dark times. Integration won’t come, it is also recognized, without struggle. Kennedy is killed. The bus announces that in a stunning song.

Caroline is the sullen maid, and if you needed no other reason to see this show, Tonya Pinkins’ understated, nuanced performance would supply it. Hers will, I hope, one day be remembered as a Broadway classic for its ability to balance smoldering anger with radiance.

What a shock it is to finally see her smile during her curtain call. And yet there is no problem recognizing that smile. It’s there all along. Surly she surely is in her washing and ironing. She is curt with little Noah, wary of white people in general and harsh with her own children. But she remembers what it was like to be young. And she might, just might, still fan the tiny flame in her soul not altogether doused. The radio, the washer and dryer, and particularly the moon are her fan.

Noah and Caroline are both outsiders, both oppressed. Each is exotic to the other. Their attraction is genuine but not without deep cultural suspicions that neither completely understands. Noah’s oppressors are benign enough -- a father who gives more attention to his clarinet than his son and a stepmother who doesn’t quite fit in.

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He envies Caroline’s family, which seems real, and intentionally leaves change money in pockets for Caroline to find in the wash and take home. Maybe they’ll think about him at dinner. Maybe he and Caroline are really alike. They, of course, are not, and even with understanding, change is no sure thing.

There is essentially no dialogue in “Caroline, or Change,” and Tesori’s score cannot, and should not, be categorized. To call it eclectic sounds worn out and meaningless. What she does, and does well, in her music is capture a milieu. The characters don’t just sing, they are absorbed by music. For Noah’s father, Stuart Gellman (David Costabile), the clarinet is his life (Sal Lozano, who is only listed as woodwind 1 in the program, deserves recognition for solos ranging from Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto to klezmer).

Caroline interacts with various ‘60s pop music styles that come from her appliances, her alter egos. Rose Stopnick Gellman (Veanne Cox) is Sondheimesque, saying one thing, thinking another, falling apart by not being able to keep her two faces on at the same time. Noah’s music is less inflected, and Benjamin Platt sang it Sunday with confident lack of artifice except for the occasional rise to emotion (where you can just hear the director pushing him instead of simply letting the kid be). Caroline’s daughter, Emmie, given a vivacious performance by Tony winner Anika Noni Rose, is the voice of fresh strength and courage, the future that is just out of Caroline’s grasp.

The more Wolfe (who developed this show at the Public Theater in New York before it went to Broadway) leaves the characters alone, lets the music tell us everything we need to know, the better. For the most part he does that, carefully managing complicated intercutting of settings and moving traffic well in the Hanukkah party with Noah’s grandparents (Alice Playten, Reathel Bean and Larry Keith) and Caroline’s friend, Dotty (Paula Newsome).

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Where he doesn’t leave well enough alone is with the singing appliances, bus and moon. Rather, Wolfe turns them into stage-stealing showbiz figures personifying black music of the era. The radio, for instance, is a trio, the Supremes (Tracy Nicole Chapman, Marva Hicks, Kenna Ramsey). The dryer could be James Brown (Chuck Cooper, who also portrays the bus). The washing machine (Capathia Jenkins) is a belter; the moon (Aisha de Haas), a sentimental songstress. Let the kid be; let the appliances be, as well.

The least trusting of music came from the sound design, which was decent in intimate music, but kept getting turned up for climaxes. Kimberly Grigsby conducted but someone else turned the knobs, controlled dynamics, and made a mess of Tesori’s more complex (and often most interesting) writing.

But Broadway isn’t used to this kind of musical sophistication. Maybe “Caroline, or Change” will change that.

*

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‘Caroline, or Change’

Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Dec. 26

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Price: $25 to $90

Contact: (213) 628-2772 or www.TaperAhmanson.com

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes


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