Written By Michelle F. Solomon

Originally published on artburstmiami.com. 

Change takes on many meanings in “Caroline, or Change,” now playing on the mainstage of Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables. There’s pocket change. Political change. A desire to change circumstances into a better present, and the present into a better future.

What “Caroline, or Change” asks of its audience, too, is to change its expectations surrounding the typical Broadway musical. Typical “Caroline, or Change” is not.

he story is partially based on playwright Tony Kushner’s childhood, growing up Jewish in small-town Louisiana in the 1960s.

It’s important to note the gestation of Kusher’s semi-autobiographical musical, which made its Broadway debut in 2004. First asked by San Francisco Opera to produce a libretto (the text or book, with a composer writing the music), his idea for “Caroline” came to mind. The roots of what might have become that opera remain part of the musical’s foundation, but don’t turn away. The musical is not an opera, although it’s a story told through music. There isn’t a bit of traditional dialogue — every word is sung, which makes it a sung-through musical (“Hamilton” is one, “Next to Normal” another, for instance).

What director David Arisco has adeptly done, utilizing his ability to bring out the best in actors, is fill his “Caroline” cast with performers who are up to the task of building this multi-layered, must-see work to its intricate glory.

A seven-piece orchestra helmed by conductor Antoine Khouri lusciously dives into Jeanine Tesori’s score, which borrows from Motown and doo-wop, samples the blues and jazz, revels in the roots of gospel, spirituals and even klezmer.

The year is 1963. The location is Lake Charles, Louisiana, where playwright Kushner grew up.  It’s the unhappy home of the Gellmans: eight-year-old Noah (Franco Kiglies); his recently widowed father, Stuart (Brian Golub), who is more in tune with his clarinet than with his son or new wife; and Rose Stopnick Gellman (Jeni Hacker), who calls her father in New York to proclaim herself “your brand-new Southern daughter,” only to ask, “How’s the Hudson River?”

[RELATED: See Christine Dolen’s Preview Story About The Production]

Brandon M. Newton’s set design captures the characters’ different worlds: at the very top of a revolving stage is Noah’s bedroom, while at the bottom is the basement laundry room where Caroline Thibodeaux (the astounding Kareema Khouri), the family’s 39-year-old Black maid, toils daily.

“Sixteen feet below sea level!/Torn tween the Devil and the muddy brown sea,” sings Caroline. Her conversations are shared with a heaven and hell she’s created – the divine Island-esque inspired Washing Machine (Toddra Brunson) and the devilishly sinister Dryer (Don Seward, who digs deep into his richly resonant bass-baritone, and has another role as Bus).

A Supremes-inspired Greek chorus serves as Radio (Asher Makeba, Whitney Renee and Gabrielle Graham), which pops in and out of various locations in the basement and also makes it to the front porch of the Thibodeaux home.

The Josephine Baker-esque Moon (Tyler Symone) appears in certain moments to calm things and provide assurance that change may come, as she floats in like Glinda the Good Witch.

The loose change that Noah leaves in his pants pockets ultimately becomes a sad commentary on the haves and the have-nots.

Stepmother Rose, who wants to teach him a lesson about taking better care of his money, tells Caroline that whatever change she finds she can keep. What’s meant to be a generous offer comes off as pandering and eventually leads to a racist war of words between Noah and Caroline and one of the most painful exchanges in the musical  – Kushner’s text doesn’t sugarcoat. The same goes for the Chanukah celebration as Mr. Stopnick (Howard Elson), a 1930s radical activist from New York, and Caroline’s teen daughter, Emmie (Cassidy Joseph), interrupt the festivities with their culture clash.

Others in the Gellman and Thibodeaux families are Stuart’s parents, Grandma and Grandpa Gellman (Patti Gardner and Peter Tedeschi), and Caroline’s other two children, Jackie (Liam X. Williams) and Joe (London Khouri, the adorably charming son of Kareema and Antoine). Caroline’s best friend, Dotty Moffett (Annaya Charlicia), is trying to make something of herself and shed her maid’s uniform for good by going to night school, but her push to get Caroline to do the same ends up splintering their friendship.

What is consistent throughout the show is the actors’ command of the characters.

Khouri as Caroline is angry, feeling like she can’t provide for her family, and has been the victim of domestic abuse. But in Khouri’s achingly human take and soaring vocals, she avoids all cliches — there’s no room in her portrayal for the stereotypical Black maid. Her power ballad performance in the 11 o’clock number “Lots’ Wife” is more than enough reason to see “Caroline, or Change” as she sings, “Murder me, God, down in that basement, Murder my dreams, so I stop wantin.’ ”

The ensemble cast is a tightly knit group, exactly what is needed to bring together this complicated story.

Brunson has a ball with the cheery and effervescent Washing Machine, as does Seward with his slithering Dryer. Hacker brings Rose, who feigns goodwill, to vivid life, especially in the number “Long Distance” (the comic timing in her asides is impeccable).

Joseph is vibrant as the rabble-rousing Emmie (standing out with Williams and London Khouri in the story song about a character named Roosevelt Petrucius Coleslaw “the ugliest child you ever saw”); Joseph imbues her character with the moxie necessary to be the representation of a generation willing to fight for a better future.

Charlicia brings to Dotty hope and courage, too. Makeba, Graham and Renee are a Marvelette dream team while Symone’s soprano brings a lovely looming presence to the moon. At 11 years old, Kiglies’ Noah is wise beyond his years, and the young actor is consistently on point.

One criticism: Somehow the gravity of what’s happening on a larger scale, outside of Lake Charles, doesn’t seem to penetrate the trials and tribulations within the families. Yet, there are messages throughout that the strife within these relationships is part and parcel of the larger picture – we’re in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, President John F. Kennedy has been shot, and it’s a difficult time to be Jewish in the South.

Almost a foreshadowing of sorts, the subplot of a Confederate statute being dismantled by “hooligans” seems plucked from recent news, yet the show made its premiere two decades ago. Many times mentioned and given such a vivid description, it’s a bit of a miss that there wasn’t a glimpse of the statue built within the stage design.

Ellis Tillman’s costumes reflect the class structures of the characters and capture the era, lighting designer Eric Nelson puts the singers in the spotlight, literally, for some of their most dramatically revealing songs, and Reidar Sorensen’s sound design couldn’t be crisper. Jodi Dellaventura’s knack for the perfect prop design — don’t miss the vintage Pyrex blue cornflower baking dish — adds much to ensuring the era.

This is an ambitious production, one that will change the way you look at theater, at history, and if the message of the play has its way, the view of the world around you.

WHAT: “Caroline, or Change” by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori

WHERE: Actors Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday (additional matinee at 2 p.m. Wednesday, April 3), through Sunday, April 14

COST: $55, $65, $75, $80, $85, $100. Seniors 65 and over get 10 percent off weekdays only, students with valid student ID pay $15 for a rush ticket available 15 minutes before a weekday performance.

INFORMATION: 305-444-9293 or actorsplayhouse.org

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