- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 25, 2006

A grieving Jewish boy, a crabby black maid, the early days of the civil rights movement — not exactly dancing candlesticks and “Hakuna Matata.” But then who would expect escapism from serious-minded playwright Tony Kushner of “Angels in America” and “Homebody/Kabul” fame?

True to form, the Pulitzer Prize winner’s first musical, “Caroline, or Change,” is a mood-struck, highly emotive work with a rueful ending and music by Jeanine Tesori that owes more to tragic opera than musical comedy.

The Studio Theatre plays up the sung-through, chamber opera aspects of the piece in a wonderfully shorn production directed by Greg Ganakas that lets the power of the performances shine through. The smallness of the Metheny Theatre and the pointed lack of special effects make “Caroline” an unusually intimate experience, and you wind up taking the emotional journey of its two unlikely musical heroes greatly to heart.

The show centers on the prickly bond between Noah Gellman (Max Talisman), a daydream-spinning 8-year-old boy frozen in pain by the death of his mother, and Caroline Thibodeaux (Julia Nixon), a 39-year-old black maid who wants to change her circumstances but cannot. The year is 1963, and the place is Lake Charles, La. The cellar laundry room is Caroline’s subterranean domain, a place where she rules with an iron and whiles away the hours in a womblike atmosphere that seals her off from all the seismic changes going on in the world — and opportunities to better her life.

Both characters seem like society’s discards on the surface, but they lead rich inner lives. Noah fantasizes about friendships and fame as a way of coping with his mother’s death and as a reaction to his distant, distracted father, Stuart (Bobby Smith). Caroline carries on long-running conversations with a smoldering Dryer (Elmore James), the Radio (a dynamic Supremes-style lineup consisting of Monique Paulwell, Omoro Omoighe, and Kearstin Piper Brown), the calypso-inspired Washing Machine (Allison Blackwell) and the radiant Moon (Miss Blackwell). These fanciful touches seem straight out of a children’s book and show the influence of Mr. Kushner’s collaborations with illustrator and author Maurice Sendak.

“Caroline” takes on a certain lilt when the Washing Machine is chugging her hips like the agitator cycle in a Maytag, the Dryer is bumping and grinding in a way much more libidinous than a sneaker in the spin cycle, and the Radio is blasting yet another creamy three-part harmony.

Amid these glints of cheer is subject matter much more grave. Two events — the Kennedy assassination and the dispensing of pocket change — force Caroline and Noah to break out of their routine of pain and confront just what is making them so unhappy. Noah’s well-meaning but stressed stepmother, Rose (Tia Speros), tired of Noah’s careless way with money, tells Caroline she can keep any change she finds in his pockets. The money is a godsend, bringing her children Emmie (Trisha Jeffrey), Jackie (Zachary Carson Blumenstein) and Joe (Kameron Lamar) little treats and necessities of living.

The money upsets the dynamic between the maid and the employer’s son, and they lash out at each other with stinging results. In a revelation glutted with sorrow, the tormented “Lot’s Wife” aria, Caroline realizes that she can’t move on, while Noah takes tentative steps toward embracing a future with his re-formed family.

The poignancy of the musical depends on the relationship between Caroline and Noah, and Studio’s production boasts a pair of superb performances. Miss Nixon exudes the pride and pain of willfully leading a small life, where even abiding faith cannot bring peace, and she can sustain a note for an astounding length of time. The pudding-cheeked Max Talisman is not your typical showbiz moppet, but his soaring voice is worthy of a boy choir.

Miss Jeffrey is also a breezy, invigorating presence as Emmie, a burgeoning revolutionary, and she and the other siblings have a joy-filled moment in the sun with the double-dutch style rhymes of the song “Roosevelt Petrucius Coleslaw.” Kelly J. Rucker also adds moments of warmth as Caroline’s forward-thinking, upbeat best friend, and conversely, Mr. Smith is greatly affecting as Noah’s quietly hopeless father.

If “Caroline” has a fault, it is its monotonously sorrowful score. The songs, although graced by Mr. Kushner’s clever language, tend to be delivered with the same gospel-tinged thrust, and the audience can take just so much bombast. Yet, when the musical soars, it burrows into those places in the heart and conscience where few have the courage to venture.

***

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

WHERE: Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 7 p.m. Sunday. Through June 25.

TICKETS: $47 to $62

PHONE: 202/332-3300

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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