Wednesday, April 29th, 2009...2:13 pm

Caroline sings and shines

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Musical chugs along, then puts the pedal to the floor with great songs in the second act

By MORDECAI SPECKTOR

The Guthrie Theater production of Caroline, or Change features some great music and singing, and stellar performances from a uniformly talented and well-directed cast.

The trick is staying awake during the first act.

The sum of the drama during the entire first act of Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s contemporary opera, which is set in Lake Charles, La., circa 1963, concerns Noah Gellman (played by Noah Coon), a spritely third-grader who forgets to empty the change from his pants pockets. This aggravates the insecurities of his stepmother, Rose Stopnick Gellman (Julie Reiber), vis-à-vis the family’s black maid, Caroline Thibodeaux (Greta Oglesby).

Caroline dutifully retrieves Noah’s change and returns the coins to the boy. Rose, who has come into the Gellman family after the death from cancer of Noah’s mother, mentions that Caroline is “making bupkes.”

Apart from the business of Noah’s forgotten change, Caroline’s world of the Gellman’s basement laundry employs some clever theatrical devices, which are aesthetically realized by set designer Richard Hoover and costume designer Candice Donnelly. Caroline’s companions are The Washing Machine (Jamecia Bennett), The Radio (portrayed by three Supremes-like singers, Felicia Boswell, Lynnea Doublette and Aurelia Williams, in shimmering dresses), and The Dryer (T. Mychael Rambo). The Moon (Aimee K. Bryant) also delivers a commentary in song.

Noah Coon (as Noah Gellman) and Greta Oglesby (as Caroline Thibodeaux) star in the Guthrie Theater production of Caroline, or Change. (Photo: Michal Daniel)Noah Coon (as Noah Gellman) and Greta Oglesby (as Caroline Thibodeaux) star in the Guthrie Theater production of Caroline, or Change. (Photo: Michal Daniel)

The full-tilt band of talented musicians, under the direction of Andrew Cooke, cook up a tasty blend jazz, R&B and klezmer tunes. Both Oglesby and Nikki Renée Daniels, who plays Emmie, Caroline’s daughter, deliver some soul-stirring vocals in the play’s second act, when the drama picks up steam. (The two young women sitting next to me never returned for the second act.)

Since about 95 percent of the dialogue is sung, and the band is pumping away above the stage, some of the nuances of Kushner’s dialogue, or lyrics, get lost in the mix. Tesori’s music is wonderful, so the viewer should be prepared for the trade-off.

The play’s title refers both to the change in Noah’s pants pockets and the change in the zeitgeist of the backwater Southern city; the civil rights movement is dawning. Caroline, a single mother, is devoted to her domestic duties for the Gellmans and trying to navigate the currents beginning to wash over Lake Charles. Her daughter Emmie is rebelling in small ways — daring to declare that JFK (whose assassination is announced at the end of the first act) didn’t “care about the black man.” Caroline chides her daughter for the use of the term “black,” as opposed to “Negro” or “colored.”

Early in the second act contention flares. Since the Gellmans are Jewish, the family’s Hanuka party becomes the setting for a debate about tactics in the civil rights movement. Rose’s father (Kenny Morris), visiting from New York, is a firebrand revolutionist, who criticizes the nonviolence campaign of the civil rights movement and yells, “Down with the filthy capitalist chozzen!”

Mr. Stopnick, who calls for violent insurrection (“Blow the bastards to kingdom come, like the Wobblies used to do! Show these rednecks a thing or two!”), has been “selling goddam hats for Macy’s, waiting for the revolution.”

Director Marcela Lorca has done a masterful job of bringing out fine musical performances and bringing balance among the many talented actors on stage.

Greta Oglesby delivers an amazing performance in the title role. She imparts great dignity to her character, plays well with the charming young Noah, and blows the roof off the joint in her final number.

Again, you just have to endure a stultifying first act setup. The good parts commence after the intermission.

***

Caroline, or Change continues on the Guthrie Theater’s Wurtele Thrust Stage through June 21, as part of the “Everything Kushner” celebration this year. Also, the Guthrie’s world premiere commission of Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexuals Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures has been delayed by one week; previews will start May 15, and the show will open May 22.

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