Caroline or Change – Driving Miss Crazy

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Caroline or Change, Photo Courtesy: Stillpointe Theatre

A REVIEW BY THE BAD ORACLE

I went to see Stillpointe’s Caroline or Change last night and I had the good fortune to be seated next to the show’s biggest fan.  A little boy, maybe about seven years old, who snapped his fingers and mouthed every word to every song for the entire first act.  When the lights went up for intermission, he looked at me taking notes and asked if I was a director.  I told him that no, I was reviewing the show and he said: “I’m a director and an actor, too.”  I asked if he liked Caroline or Change and he said that yes, he has seen it onstage twice before and listens to the soundtrack every day.  I said “What do you think of this production?” and he gave me a look and said, “It’s okay, I guess.  Pretty good.  Kinda hard to see.  Put that in.”  I said I would and here it is.  As  a review, I think it’s a touch on the harsh side, but adroit nonetheless (I told him we were hiring at The Bad Oracle but his grandmother rolled her eyes and said, “Oh, Lord.” and the lights went down again so I don’t know if he’s interested or not).  The show was pretty good – a little better than that, even! – and it was hard to see.  Caroline was staged in a big old God-barn down on Cathedral street and, while a more perfect space for this show could hardly be imagined, the seating area had no rake to it and we were basically looking at the backs of heads.  If anything happened on the floor level below shoulder height, I can’t review it.  That seems like a moot point, though, when you consider how fucking beautiful the set was (design by Nolan Cartwright, Jeanine Vreat, Danielle Robinette, and Mitchel Brower).  Even for Stillpointe, who I have begun to count on for impressive atmosphere, this three-tiered affair (the scope of which perfectly matched the show’s soaring, operatic air) was a huge score.  Ku-dos.   Caroline or Change is a place-and-time study centered around Caroline Thibodeaux (Theresa Cunningham), [black] maid to the [white] Gellman family, which is composed of grieving widower Stuart (Ben Shaver), new mommy Rose (Shani Hadjian) and little Noah (Steven Gross).  Caroline is just gettin’ through it in the deep, dark, turbulant days of early sixties Louisiana.  She’s too old to imagine anything different and too young not to be pissed about it.  Caroline’s lair is the Gellman’s humid, damp, bayou basement, which comes complete with singing appliances that feel more kin to her than the family one floor above.  One day Rose blithely trips down the stairs and suggests that any spare change Noah leaves in his pants pockets should be confiscated by Caroline as an object lesson in money management.  Caroline bristles over this white-lady’s well-meant (maybe) and horribly condescending offer.   Noah decides to test Caroline’s resolve not to take “money from a baby” by leaving increasing amounts in his clothes.  To his white-savoir’s delight, Caroline eventually does start to pocket the nickels and dimes, figuring that it’s justified to be able to take her children to the dentist.  Noah’s game does not extend, however, to a twenty-dollar bill, a Hanukah gift from his grouchy step-grandfather Stopnick (B. Thomas Rinaldi), and, in the ensuing argument, untakebackable words are uttered from both parties.  Caroline ultimately accepts that her life is what it is, with a glimmer of hope coming in the form of the defiant eyes of her children, particularly her daughter, Emmie (Nasya Nicole Jeffers).  Director Darnell Morris takes a unique, almost delicate, view on this story, focusing on small moments of character building.  Unfortunately, this leads to bizarrely uneven energy at some points – there were moments where I wanted it to belt, to be big and take-no-prisoners, only to have it be slightly thin, shy, almost unsure.  It began to frustrate me as it was like, “Guys, you got this, now stick it, take it” and led to these glorious singers coming off, at times, almost mush-mouthed and difficult to understand.  This is not to say that there wasn’t shiningly splendidly magic to be found here, only that some numbers (notably the second act’s “I Hate the Bus”) seem to run out of steam.  But, but, when the show flies, it REALLY flies.  Cunningham pulls the title character off nearly flawlessly.  Caroline is not the sassy, pandering, Helpish “domestic” that makes us giggle and “you go girl!” at her.  She’s a real, breathing, angry woman who is no fool and is so much deeper than a snappy hip pop.  Cunningham wisely keeps Caroline guarded, even from her children.  Her beautiful face is closed.  Her voice isn’t the angelic, pure tone of a gospel choir singer (although I have no doubt she could be that, if she wanted to) but the cigarette-touched, rawish, golden howl of a woman who has known pain.  “Lot’s Wife” is miraculous and I can only imagine what Cunningham has to do to get that pause right before the last line to fucking do that.  I cried, damned straight I did.  Nasya Nicole Jeffers started a little slow for me but bloomed into some brilliant work in “Moon, Emmie and Stuart Trio” and “Epilogue”.  Steven Gross’s Noah Gellman is a solar flare who bursts out in “Noah Down the Stairs”, trailing the afterimage of Scout Finch behind him, and doesn’t let up until “Why Does our House Have a Basement?”.   I wasn’t sure how I felt about Shani Hadjian’s wretched stepmother Rose, I wanted her to kick it up a notch and give a little more in the first act, but she caught me by the end, especially in the late-in-the-game “Aftermath”.  I was hooked on S. Ann Johnson’s bluesey, swaggery voice as Caroline’s neighbor Dotty Moffett, especially during “Sunday Morning”.  She and Cunningham are also swingin’ fire in “Dottie and Caroline”.  Lawrence D. Bryant was hilarious as the gleam-smiled Dryer, if ever there was an appliance funnier or sleazier, I wouldn’t believe it.  I loved Bryant in last year’s Sweeney Todd and he gets me again here, as does Kay-Megan Washington leaping out as a totally lively Washing Machine.  Nice to see Dyana Neal and Jim Knost popping in as Grandma and Grandpa Gellman – more than just pretty voices, they bring the acting level up quite a few points and are, I believe, a couple in Real Life, which is adorable.  The ladies of The Radio, styled as a sixties girl group, are lovely.  They start a little tentative but machete “Salty Tears” by last call.  Absolut fave among supporting, though, was Morgan Fannon’s Moon.  Holy shiz can she belt ya one (awwwesome in Act One ender “Roosevelt Petrucius Coleslaw”) and she’s fucking gorgeous to boot.  I really couldn’t find even one quibble with the costumes (design by Danielle Robinette, Mitchel Brower and Ryan Haase) and thought they were quite inspired, especially the nod to African headwraps combined with diva-style glittery gowns worn by The Moon and Washing Machine.   Lighting (design by Amanda J. Rife) was mostly fine but left some of the action, regrettably, in the dark.

BOTTOM LINE:  While this Caroline wasn’t a qualified knock-the-laces-off-it-out-of-the-parker, it was still a mighty fine win.  Strong actors in strong roles made it soar and, when it worked, it lifted me straight to the rafters.   Stillpointe’s season thus far has been breathtaking.  I’m on the edge of my seat to see what’s coming next.

Running at Stillpointe until January 4th

SECOND OPINION?

http://dcmetrotheaterarts.com/2014/12/22/caroline-change-stillpointe-theatre-initiative/

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