Sunday, February 26, 2017

Caroline, OR Change

My Year of Living Theatrically continues with production #25 at Round House Theater in Bethesda, Maryland: "Caroline, OR Change".

Ended February with a trip to Round House Theater and their production of Tony Kushner's (Angels in America) musical "Caroline, OR Change", and like so many things I go to--I had no idea what it was about except that there was a 60's era maid in the cast.  Admittedly, not much to go on.  It is about a maid and her family and her relationship to the Jewish family for whom she washes clothes in Lake Charles, Louisiana.  In particular it is about the relationship between the 13-year-old son, Noah, of the white family and Caroline, the black maid.  Woven around them are the tails of Caroline's best friend, Dotty, and Caroline's three youngest children, Emmie, Jackie and Joe, of Noah's Dead Mother, Betsy, and grieving father, Stuart, and his young step-mother, Rose.  Rose's father comes for Hanukah as do Stuart's parents.  And last but not least are the inanimate objects that come to life in supporting roles: the Washing Machine, the Dryer, the Radio, the Bus and the Moon.  No matter how you slice it, this is an ambitious show. 

I found myself initially struggling to embrace the conventions in spite of the amazing singing voices.  And the set was stunning!  This wall-less home with 4 levels that rotated on an inner circle while furniture and props and actors rotated in the opposite direction on an outer circle.   As luck would have it, I was also sitting on the correct side of the stage to have straight on views of Caroline's home and the bus stop, which were played outside the main set.

But something happened after intermission.  The score became less ambitious and more straightforward.  The meaning of the songs was easier to grasp on a cold-listen, and that gave everything more power.  The first character to step out of the mix and shine was Rose Gellmen, played by Dorea Schmidt.  (I had previously seen her perform in two Arena Stage Musicals, as Mrs. Sowerberry in "Oliver!" and Tzeitel in "Fiddler on the Roof".  I swear you'd never recognize her from one of these performances to the other.  She's just that good.  And for this role to shine, it takes exceptional finesse and care to be able to hit just the right note, and upon the foundation set in the first half--she nailed it. 

The next ensemble member out of the gate was Korinn Walfall as Emmie Thibodeaux, Caroline's daughter.  We already know, from act one, she can sing, but when she sings, "I Hate the Bus"--I was taken to a place in her character's heart and held captive.  But I didn't feel the least bit trapped.  Just, so fortunate.  It's worth noting that she also held the group numbers with the younger boys together like a seasoned professional, anchoring the epilogue poignantly and powerfully.

The final burst from the layer of wonderful came when the title character, played by Nova Y. Payton came to sing, "Lot's Wife".  It is her song of redemption, and she delivered it with such raw, bold, conviction that before I realized it, the warm tears were flowing down both cheeks even as my ears told me that I was not alone.  When she finished the otherwise reserve audience erupted in not only applause, but cheers and shouts of accolade.  (Originally conceived of by Kushner as an opera, the audience response to this performance was completely operatic in it's passion.)  It was the apex of the production and raised the rest of the show to an easy, euphoric glide home.  Amazing. 

It's a musical that captures the conflicts and tragedies of a pivotal moment in American history and in a pair of American families.  It's ambitions, it doesn't always hit the mark as thing, but it has the bones that allow all it's parts to entertain, embrace, inform and transcend.  Too bad this was it's next to last performance.
The stunning set with Caroline (Nova Y. Payton) and Dotty (Awa Sel Secka), and The Moon (Delores King Williams)
Caroline with The Washing Machine (Theresa Cunningham) on the left and The Radio (Felicia Curry, Olivia Russell, and Kara-Teimeka Watkins) on the right
Caroline with The Dryer (V. Savoy McIlwaine) whose deep baritone/base voice was very HOT!
Caroline with Noah (Griffin McCahill)
Caroline with her daughter, Emmie (Korinn Walfall)

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