Strong acting lifts fantasy-tinged 'Caroline, or Change'

CorrespondentFebruary 17, 2014 

Lora Tatum as Caroline Thibodeaux and Arel Marsh as Noah Gellman in “Caroline, or Change.”

CURTIS BROWN PHOTOGRAPHY

  • Details

    What: “Caroline, or Change”

    Where: Raleigh Little Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh

    When: 8 p.m. Feb. 20-22, 27-28 and Mar. 1; 3 p.m. Feb. 23 and Mar. 2

    Tickets: $18-$22

    Info: 919-821-3111 or raleighlittletheatre.org

Raleigh Little Theatre’s selection of musicals has been quite adventurous lately, but “Caroline, or Change” is one of its most challenging. A plucky cast and dedicated creative team ultimately win over the audience with this fantasy-tinged, eclectically scored show. What makes it entirely recommendable, however, is the searing portrayal of the title character.

Caroline is an African-American maid working for a Jewish family in 1963 Louisiana. Eight-year-old Noah has bonded with Caroline because of his distant father and his nervous new stepmother, Rose.

To teach Noah a lesson about leaving change in his pockets, Rose tells Caroline to keep all she finds. Noah secretly starts leaving change for Caroline but a rift occurs when she keeps a $20 bill that’s left accidentally. Angry prejudices spill out, making Caroline realize she can’t continue ignoring the changes demanded by the burgeoning civil rights movement, despite her old-world ways.

Tony Kushner’s script has actors portraying a washer, a dryer, a radio, a city bus and the moon, all singing advice to Caroline. Although amusingly whimsical, these scenes fit awkwardly into the plot’s everyday realities. Jeanine Tesori’s score impressively rotates among gospel, blues, klezmer and Motown, but it comes in snippets, rarely feeling finished off. There is insightful commentary about politics, race and religion woven into this sung-through story, but often in confusing and off-putting ways.

That doesn’t stop Lora Deneen Tatum’s Caroline from holding the audience with every enthralling note and gripping emotion, making the audience accept the show’s oddities through her total commitment to the role. Tatum ends her stellar performance with a devastating, intense solo in which Caroline questions her life’s direction.

Arel Marsh brings mature understanding to Noah, confidently negotiating the score’s difficulties. Monique Argent Gannon finds vulnerability under Rose’s self-centeredness. Brishelle Miller gives Caroline’s teenage daughter Emmie winning warmth and Emelia Cowans makes Caroline’s friend Dotty prickly but loving.

Director Karen Dacons-Brock puts the 17-member cast though its paces effectively on Thomas Mauney’s stage-filling, multilevel set, but it requires the actors to be too far back in crucial scenes. Scott R. McKenzie’s orchestra engages knowingly the wide-ranging music. At Friday’s opening, voices were sometimes indistinct, either from poor enunciation or from sound equipment problems.

Those who can accept the show’s unorthodox elements should come away moved and enlightened.

Dicks: music_theater@lycos.com

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