In 1963, when the civil-rights movement is just beginning to open new doors across the South, a single mother of three finds herself trapped in a laundry room in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Her employers have the only basement in town. As Caroline sings in the show's opening moments, "Nothing ever happen underground in Louisiana, cause they ain't no underground in Louisiana. There's only underwater."
Caroline is simmering with anger and attitude. She is also entertained by singing and dancing appliances in an opening scene that makes Tony Kushner's first musical, Caroline, or Change - now playing at Karamu, in a production cooperatively staged with Dobama - seem like a happy, grown-up version of Sesame Street. Only gradually do we realize that this is a child's view of the magical haven where the family laundress spends her days - so much more interesting to the 8-year-old Noah than the rest of his middle-class home. The spell is broken when a deep-voiced bus, come to take the maids back to their own neighborhood, sings of the assassination of President Kennedy.
Caroline, or Change is a semi-autobiographical look at the South where Kushner grew up during the civil-rights movement. It is a recreation of the world of a lonely child, where objects have a voice and a personality of their own, a celebration of the exuberance and imagination that sustains an underclass condemned to poverty in a time of change and an exploration of the uneasy relations between Jews and blacks. Richard H. Morris Jr.'s split-level set shows the upstairs/downstairs world of the "help" in a liberal middle-class home, where social issues are talked about in the parlor and lived on the other side of the kitchen door.
Like most of Kushner's work, Caroline sprawls from one issue, and even one style, to another, held together by the force of his imagination and the power of his unique vision. In his hands the serious becomes entertaining and vice-versa. Composer Jeanine Tesori has written a semi-operatic score that brings these many moods to life with a mix of Motown, funky R&B, gospel and Klezmer. There are very few spoken words; almost every line is sung. This creates occasional articulation problems that would not be present in a conventional musical, where the spoken word sets the scene for musical numbers.
An exceptional cast led by Sheffia Randall Dooley as Caroline and the amazing Christian Flaherty as young Noah Gellman rises to the challenge with energy, talent and enthusiasm. Notable performances are delivered by Ayeshah Douglas as the twistin' and turnin' washing machine; Darryl Louis as the deep-voiced, devil-made-him dryer; Katrice Monee Headd, Stacey Arielle Wallace and Taresa Willingham as the "supreme" radio; Katherine DeBoer as Noah's long-suffering stepmother; Colleen Longshaw as Caroline's friend Dotty; and Alexis Generette Floyd as Carolyn's rebellious teen-age daughter.
Dobama and Karamu have collaborated on a number of shows in the past, primarily under the direction of Sarah May, who returns to the Jelliffe to bring Caroline to life with the able assistance of Musical Director Ed Ridley.
While occasionally succumbing to political correctness and lyrical glitches - like the rhyming of "bomb" with "nuclear pogrom" - Caroline, or Change attains a powerful resolution, both musically and dramatically. We leave the theater with a new understanding of the power and the painfulness of change.
Caroline, or Change Through October 12 Karamu's Jelliffe Theatre 2355 E. 89th St. 216.932.3396 (Dobama) 216.795.7077 (Karamu)