Raleigh Little Theatres 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 thats left accidentally. Angry prejudices spill out, making Caroline realize she cant continue ignoring the changes demanded by the burgeoning civil rights movement, despite her old-world ways.
Tony Kushners 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 plots everyday realities. Jeanine Tesoris 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 doesnt stop Lora Deneen Tatums Caroline from holding the audience with every enthralling note and gripping emotion, making the audience accept the shows oddities through her total commitment to the role. Tatum ends her stellar performance with a devastating, intense solo in which Caroline questions her lifes direction.
Arel Marsh brings mature understanding to Noah, confidently negotiating the scores difficulties. Monique Argent Gannon finds vulnerability under Roses self-centeredness. Brishelle Miller gives Carolines teenage daughter Emmie winning warmth and Emelia Cowans makes Carolines friend Dotty prickly but loving.
Director Karen Dacons-Brock puts the 17-member cast though its paces effectively on Thomas Mauneys stage-filling, multilevel set, but it requires the actors to be too far back in crucial scenes. Scott R. McKenzies orchestra engages knowingly the wide-ranging music. At Fridays opening, voices were sometimes indistinct, either from poor enunciation or from sound equipment problems.
Those who can accept the shows unorthodox elements should come away moved and enlightened.