When the through-composed musical drama “Caroline, or Change” hit New York in 1999, the combination of kitchen-sink realism and wall-to-wall music had critics looking for a new genre in which to pigeonhole it.
They couldn’t find one. The story of a Caroline, a poor black maid working for a Jewish family in 1963 Louisiana to support her precocious children, could easily have been sugar-coated by a score of radio-friendly hits about the struggles for equality.
Instead, playwrights Tony Kushner (‘Angels in America’) and Jeanine Tesori created a seamless blend of sound inspired by Motown, blues, soul, Klezmer, and even classical music.
A joint production by Peppermint Creek and Riverwalk theaters, the show’s Michigan premiere does this multilayered show full justice.
Eschewing a restrictive pop formula, “Caroline” explores a heightened, Sondheim-inspired reality that even gives voice to everyday appliances. In fact, it’s the appliances that kick-start the show: Leslie Hull as a sultry washing machine, Zurich Dawson as a soulful dryer, and Jessie Allen, Laura Croff and Rebecca Lane as a Supremes-inspired radio. These are extremely versatile gadgets; they hold conversations with Caroline and add sweet harmonies to the music.
Tigiste Habtemariam handles the lead vocals with uncompromising strength as the title character, Caroline Thibodeaux. Caroline sees herself as untouched by turbulent racial politics until its ugliness confronts her head-on. Habtemariam’s rock-steady, musical growl keeps the show rolling forward.
Caroline’s many foils are played by a variety of talented actors, including Sia Lewis as her friend Dotty Moffett, who constantly pushes and prods Caroline’s stubborn beliefs.
Caroline’s oldest child, Emmie, combines the strength of her widowed mother with the fearlessness of a pre-teen, making her confrontations with her mother all the more explosive. It’s a very large role for someone as young as Taryn Bigelow, but she brings the character to multidimensional life with stunning ease.
Another group of actors brings the Gellmans, the Jewish family Caroline works for, to idiosyncratic life.
Shattered after the loss of his wife, the family patriarch Stuart Gellman plays his clarinet to pacify his pain. The magnetic Chad Dekatch conveys Stuart’s agony with intensely nervous restraint. The daunting role of his son, Noah, is played by D.J. Shafer, whose strong voice and credible delivery provide a tender touch and emotional grounding to his character. His mother, Rose Stopnick, tries to cultivate a relationship with her son but has difficultly breaking through. Amanda Whitehead nicely balances the tenderness of her character with a stubborn inability to face hard truths.
Director Chad Badgero and the Peppermint Creek Theatre Co. take full advantage of the expansive thrust space of the Riverwalk Theatre in ways they never could at smaller venues like Perspective 2 or the Creole Gallery. With a detailed set designed by Andrew
Sadstedt, scenes take place all around the audience, adding multiple
layers and levels to an already rich experience. One of the best stage
plotting coups is the placement of the pit orchestra behind the stage.
With the exception of drums, the orchestra, led tightly by John Dale
Smith, is mixed through the same speakers as the singers. The result is a
full and balanced sound where finer details are not lost.
‘Caroline, or Change’
Peppermint Creek/Riverwalk theatres Continues Sept. 16-19 7 p.m. Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri.- Sat., 2 p.m. Sunday At Riverwalk Theatre 228 Museum Dr., Lansing $18-20 (517) 482-5700 www.riverwalkthatre.com
The lighting and sound design by Joe Dickson is, as usual, practiced and precise, even though he had to juggle no less than 15 different microphones. Patti Campbell’s costumes cannot be overlooked for their period precision — especially the creatively costumed appliances.
There’s a lot of music to take in and a lot of thought to digest in “Caroline,” but it all goes down smoothly and memorably, thanks to high technical competence and first-rate performances all around.