With such works as "Angels in America" and "Homebody/Kabul" to his credit, any new play by Tony Kushner is a big draw. That's especially true when the award-winning American playwright stretches himself into the musical realm, working with composer Jeanine Tesori ("Thoroughly Modern Millie," "Violet") to create "Caroline, or Change."
The Tony-nominated show has come to San Francisco in an exclusive engagement, not on tour, under the auspices of Best of Broadway, which is directed by Carole Shorenstein Hays and Scott E. Nederlander. They also produced the show on Broadway.
Kushner sets the semi-autobiographical story in his hometown of Lake Charles, La., during the last two months of 1963. Noah Gellman (Benjamin Platt, alternating with Sy Adamowsky) is a lonely little Jewish boy mourning his mother's death from cancer and rejecting his father's well-meaning new wife, Rose (Veanne Cox). His father, Stuart (David Costabile), has become remote, retreating to the comfort of his clarinet. However, Noah is attached to Caroline (Tonya Pinkins), the family's black housekeeper, who tries to rebuff him and who struggles to care for her three children left at home. Her husband deserted her several years ago, and her oldest son is in Vietnam.
Noah has a habit of leaving loose change in the pockets of his pants when he puts them in the laundry basket, and Caroline unfailingly puts them in a bleach cup to return to him. Rose is determined to break Noah of this habit, so she tells the reluctant Caroline she can keep any change she finds.Noah doesn't mind until he forgets to retrieve the $20 bill that he received for Chanukah. This household drama takes place in the larger context of social change in the United States, especially with the assassination of President Kennedy, and the need for Caroline to make some changes in her life so that she's not so angry.
Caroline's basement realm comes to life with a singing Washing Machine (Capathia Jenkins), singing Dryer (Chuck Cooper) and the Radio (Supremes-like Tracy Nicole Chapman, Marva Hicks and Kenna Ramsey). Cooper also does double duty as the Bus, and Aisha De Haas is the Moon. However, their effectiveness is diminished by a combination of a distorting sound system (Jon Weston) and imprecise diction. Pinkins has similar problems, but she also tries too hard to belt out her songs, leaving her voice hoarse and her lyrics hard to understand. On the other hand, Anika Noni Rose as Caroline's teenage daughter, Emmie, is terrific.
So are Platt as Noah and Leon G. Thomas III and Corwin Tuggles as Caroline's two younger sons, who are about Noah's age. Also noteworthy are Alice Playten and Reathel Bean as Noah's grandparents, Larry Keith as Rose's father and Paula Newsome as Dotty Moffett, Caroline's friend.
The show is directed by George C. Wolfe with sets by Riccardo Hernández, costumes by Paul Tazewell, lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, choreography by Hope Clarke and musical direction by Kimberly Grigsby.
Tesori's score is enjoyably eclectic with elements of soul, Mozart, klezmer, rock and others, but because some lyrics aren't clear, Kushner's book doesn't always come through as well as necessary.
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