Long before the critically acclaimed Tony Kushner joined the pantheon of great American playwrights with his iconic “Angels in America” saga, he was raised in Lake Charles, Louisiana by musical parents (his father and mother favored woodwinds) who employed an African-American maid. Decades later, exceptionally assisted by composer Jeanine Tesori (“Thoroughly Modern Millie”), Kushner loosely chronicled his impressionable 1960s childhood by providing book and lyrics for the compelling sung-through musical “Caroline, or Change,” a thoroughly engaging, stunningly whimsical tale of personal strife, cultural shifts, race relations, and domestic economics that garnered numerous 2004 Tony Award nominations and currently receives an outstanding local premiere courtesy of the Human Race Theatre Company.
Set in Lake Charles during November and December of 1963, “Caroline” sharply centers on abrasive, divorced African-American maid Caroline Thibodeaux, a hard-working, churchgoing mother of four earning $30 per week from an emotionally scarred Jewish family consisting of recent widower Stuart, his supportive new wife Rose and their young son Noah. Idolized, befriended and innocently pestered by Noah, Caroline (splendidly portrayed by Tanesha Gary of the original Broadway cast) routinely finds solace in the family’s scorching basement while conversing with her faithful posse: a washing machine, radio and dryer. These soulfully inanimate devices provide revealing commentary on a variety of situations chipping away at Caroline’s spirit, particularly her meager finances, troubling history as a battered wife and the danger of defying her employers. Following news of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, situations swell when Rose asks Caroline to keep any spare change she finds in Noah’s pants pockets. What begins as a simple exercise ultimately sparks a clash that brings Caroline, surviving on her last nerve, to a pivotal breaking point psychologically and spiritually.
Unsurprisingly, Kushner’s musical theater debut is not without his standard polemic impulses. His insightful if prolonged libretto, greatly benefitting from its civil rights era backdrop, specifically overreaches when Rose’s outspoken father arrives for Hanukkah and eventually berates the cause of African-American non-violence. Even so, this musical character study, warmly and atmospherically directed by Scott Stoney, is not defiantly agenda-driven, marking a stylistic departure for the sociopolitical Kushner. He creates colliding worlds beyond Northerners and Southerners or whites and blacks. Most significantly, he depicts the judgmental mentality within the black community in terms of class, opportunity, religion and terminology. In turn, profound drama arises, particularly when Caroline, virtually living at a standstill at the age of 39, finds herself at odds with the bold progressiveness of her old friend-turned-college student Dotty Moffett (the wonderfully earthy Taprena Augustine) and her spirited, rebellious daughter Emmie (the absolutely radiant Yvette Williams). In a dynamic, verbally heated sequence, strikingly accented by the anthropomorphoric appearances of the Moon (the winsome Tonya Thompson) and the Bus (booming baritone Dwelvan David, who also portrays the Dryer), Dotty bluntly responds to a furious Caroline with a poetic retort recalling August Wilson: “Sorry you is sick and shame/Sorry you drinkin’ misery tea/Sorry your life ain’t what it should be.” Soon after, their wounds begin to heal in “Moon Trio,” a truly ravishing, quasi-operatic number within a melodically sublime, lyrically beguiling score flavorfully encompassing Yiddish Klezmer, blues, gospel, familiar holiday strains, and Motown-inspired R&B.
Whether humorously dreaming of Nat King Cole in “Gonna Pass Me a Law” or executing a powerhouse rendition of Caroline’s emotional aria “Lot’s Wife,” Tanesha Gary, masterly comprehending the vocally demanding complexities of the score, firmly humanizes a character some might perceive as excessively cold, prideful or standoffish. (A male equivalent would be Leo Frank, the protagonist of the underrated Jason Robert Brown/Alfred Uhry musical “Parade”.) In a refreshing departure from Tony nominee Tonya Pinkins’ imposing yet harsh portrayal, Gary doesn’t overplay Caroline’s tough rigidity, which can be intimidating and downright chilling, most notably in her climatic Act 2 exchange with Noah (the endearing, focused Brendan Plate). Caroline, suffocated by her stubbornness, may never be the life of the party, but she isn’t a woman made of stone. In every inch of Gary’s skillful performance, it is possible to connect on some level with the substantial weight of Caroline’s painful struggles and deep disenchantment which keep her from experiencing and obtaining her idea of fulfillment.
Additionally luminous within the intimate world of “Caroline” are the pleasant Brittany Campbell as the Washing Machine, amiable Adrienne Gibbons Oehlers as Rose, a convincingly detached Bruce Sabath (of the 2007 Tony Award-winning actor/musician revival of “Company”) as Stuart, the delightfully compatible Kay Bosse and K.L. Storer as Grandma and Grandpa Gellman, the vigorous Saul Caplan as Mr. Stopnick, the adorable Malachi-Phree J. Pate and J. Miguel Conrado Rojas (who winningly step into the spotlight for the infectious “Roosevelt Petrucius Coleslaw”), respectively, as Caroline’s young sons Jackie and Joe, and the terrifically magnetic Ashanti J’Aria, Kimberly Shay Hamby and Shawn Storms as the Radio. J’Aria, Hamby and Storms, supplying a lovely version of the beautifully harmonic gem “Salty Teardrops” late in Act 2, synchronize in the aisles with fetching finesse thanks to choreographer Teressa Wylie, who captures the girl group essence of the 1960s with similar pizzazz in Wright State University’s current production of “Hairspray.” Dan Gray’s attractive set effectively incorporating a turntable, Kristine Kearney’s fine period costumes, John Rensel’s expert lighting design, Nathan D. Dean’s crisp sound design evocatively summoning the outdoors, and music director Scot Woolley’s commendable offstage orchestra also heighten the production’s immense appeal.
“Change come fast and change come slow but change come Caroline Thibodeaux,” warns the Moon. Transition, in all forms, is an inescapable fact of life uniquely addressed in the remarkably relevant “Caroline, or Change,” which blew me away when I saw its off-Broadway incarnation and subsequent Broadway transfer. Without question, the Human Race has created an equally unforgettable, must see presentation.
“Caroline, or Change” continues through Nov. 20 at the Loft Theatre, 126 N. Main St. Performances are Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Act One: 60 minutes; Act Two: 65 minutes. A special post-show discussion will be held following the Nov. 13 performance. Tickets are $15.50-$40. For tickets or more information, call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit www.humanracetheatre.org