Book and Lyrics by Tony Kushner
Music by Jeanine Tesori
Directed by Marcela Lorca
Guthrie Theater
818 South Second St.
Minneapolis, MN 55415

Reviewed by Michael J. Opperman

My evening companion opened the Guthrie's program. "A musical? You didn't tell me it was going to be a musical. I thought Kushner was serious." She read to the first sentence of director Marcela Lorca's notes. "It's almost an opera? I hate operas," she wailed quietly. Rifling through the program, her scepticism grew: an operatic musical featuring personified appliances and an African-American washer women in a Jewish family's Louisiana basement that opens on the eve of President Kennedy's assassination promised, it seemed, to overreach and caricature the complexities of an era to which we reflexively refer so frequently today, these heady Obamatastic days.

But the set design suggested something more complex: designer Richard Hoover offers the audience an elaborate, vivid scene of a house divided by floors, but also by class, race and mourning. Thanks to the subtle work of lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger, the brightest object on stage was the turquoise electric washing machine and its box of FAB detergent: shiny, new-fangled, sleek, optimistically modern. It pops open to receive laundry but also to reveal the commanding Jamecia Bennett, whose deep, bright voice stirred my companion. If the Washing Machine's churning dance and skirt of bright white swirling pleats suggested the rhythmic but unending labor that consumes the days of Caroline Thibodeaux (Greta Oglesby) in the Gellman household, other personified objects are equally rich: a two-part Bus (T. Mychael Rambo) whose hinged middle separates whites from Blacks but also suggests a broken social program; the Radio (Felicia Boswell, Lynnea Doublette, Aurelia Williams) sung by a trio whose sexy truth-telling reinvents the traditional chorus; the Dryer (also T. Mychael Rambo) is the closest thing to a lover Caroline has: steamy, frightening, physically imposing, and able to stir Caroline into remembering more passionate days.

The most ambitious of these characters, the Moon (Aimee K. Bryant), presents the play with its central ambiguity: the nature of change. These objects haunt Caroline's days and her nights, but the central tensions in the play are between her and the real people in her life. Indeed, it is from these tensions that change must and will come. Among the living, divisions and oppositions reign: the eight-year-old Noah Gellman (Ryan McDowell Poehler) stands small, pale, and energetic to Caroline's imposing, dark weariness. The relentless optimism of Rose Gellman (Michelle Barber) battles Caroline's guarded efficiency. These oppositions come to the fore when Caroline arrives home, on the segregated bus to the small house where she lives with three of her four children and where she struggles to pay the rent and keep her kids in good health. Some of the most poignant exchanges are between Caroline and her friend Dotty (Regina Marie Williams), an optimistic self-improver who remembers a happier Caroline; or between Caroline and her daughter Emmie (Nikki RenŽe Daniels), who is coming of age during the Civil Rights movement, with its fierceness and idealism and trespasses of conventional social limits.

Two families: the Thibodeaux and the Gellmans, two religions and cultures, two ways of mourning loss, two ways of raising the next generation of citizens who will be, perhaps, better off -- and better equipped to usher in a more equitable social order. It's not clear whether prayer, Marxism, good financial habits, or a loving mother is the key to positive social change, but all these ideals appear and converge upon parents and children in Caroline, or Change. Jeanine Tesori's music soars, leveraging harmonies to amplify the intimacy of these tensions and to elevate the political up to the level of the personal. The traditions from which Tesori draws, whether Klezmer, Motown, or spiritual, form something unmistakably American. Tony Kushner's script -- largely sung -- is the backbone to this interweaving of harmonies and ruptures. Kushner is a master of avoiding the cliched tropes of American storytelling, in Caroline, or Change, he sidesteps the traps of so many stories about race conflict by insisting on the very personal struggles that are the foundations of social unrest. The result is a story that is immediate, moving, and surprising for nearly every character on stage.

My companion emerged convinced -- and, though she didn't admit it, tearful. She wasn't alone in the Wurtele Thrust Stage: the theater was full of an energy uncommon to many Twin Cities audiences, who gave this production a seemingly spontaneous standing ovation.

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