THE 1960’s CIVIL RIGHTS ERA MAKE AN IMPORTANT STATEMENT FOR ANY “CHANGE”
IN CAROLINES BELOW SEA BASEMENT
The Victoria stage is set back to 1963 in a basement of a well to do Jewish family in Louisiana. The powerful CAROLINE OR CHANGE is now on stage through Oct 5th at Ray of Lights fall production of Tony Kushner’s only musical. It is impressive to note that just two blocks from the iconic Victoria Theatre, Kushner opened his first workshops for ANGELS IN AMERICA back in 1991 at the old Eureka warehouse stage on 16th street. But this fall it was a pleasure to see the old Vic transformed into the Gellman/Kushner family home.
Kushner says he doesn't know how any person of color stays sane; “I don’t know what power it is in human beings that keeps them going against indescribable forces of destruction. By means of what magic do people transform bitter centuries of enslavement into Beauty and Grace”. Kushner tells the story of 39-year-old Caroline Thibodeaux in Louisiana; she is a black maid. She is working her days away in the middle-class Jewish Gellmans' basement. She is poorly paid and has three children at home to support, while the family upstairs has money to spare. Jeanine Tesori ( Fun Home), wrote the music that includes the insightful first song “16 Feet Beneath The Sea” that describes the basement were we see most of the story.
At the start of the story Caroline Thibodeaux is doing laundry in the basement of the Gellman’s Lake Charles home. In reality Louisiana homes don’t have basements “Nothing ever happen underground/ in Louisiana/Cause there ain’t no underground/in Louisiana/There is only/underwater ” sings the maid. Caroline is played by the gifted Jasmyne Brice who brings warm passion and distress to the working mom with three kids. Caroline sings as the washing machine beats out its rhythms in the below sea level basement.
Brice is backed up by a shimmering trio; the riveting Elizabeth Jones, Cadarious Mayberry and Majesty Scott as “The Radio”, who sing the soul music. The three sing the “Laundry Quintet” while at the top of the stairs stands 8-year-old Noah Gellman, who mourns his mother's death and dislikes his stepmother, Rose. Played by the young superb Christopher Apy he sings “Caroline our maid!/Caroline. Caroline! Caroline! Caroline/the president of the United States!” he belts out his love for his surrogate mom and maid.
The splendid Katie Pimentel plays the mom of the house, Rose, who thinks it is a generous gesture to allow Caroline to keep any change she finds in her son's and husband's pockets when doing the washing. The song “Quarter in the Bleach Cup” turns out to be a severe test for the family/maid relationship, and for Caroline's own emotions. The story is also set against a tense, revolutionary backdrop, but this song book contains a great deal of joy, humour and class. Thanks to a glorious cast, led by the inimitable Brice as the maid. In a flawless performance she is everything from determined to angry, showing both strength and weakness, and vocally flawless.
The compelling Markalia Dyson plays Caroline's daughter, Emmie, with boundless feistiness and an ideal energy. Caroline is unwavering in her belief that the racial divide won't last forever, and the future will be brighter for her and her children. The child cast on stage opening night playing Noah Gellman and Caroline's two younger sons Jackie and Joe, all sparkled in their roles.
8th grade actor Apy as Noah provides a bridge between upstairs and downstairs for much of the show. His “Aftermath” song he sings after he fights with Caroline is chilling as it is sweet “on the next day day, Caroline stayed away way way and didn’t come back back, back.”
The musical numbers with Emmie, Jackie and Joe played by Dyson, Royal Micken and the adorable Antonio Banks as little Joe are a highlight, reflecting the energy and optimism of youth. They sing “Caroline Takes My Money Home” that stops the show and features Angel Adedokan’s bright choreography. The fantastical household appliances rock with blues and hope and include the dynamite Leslie Ivy as the Washing Machine who is bright and bubbly.
The full throttle Anthone Jackson is the Dryer suitably devilish, and the trio playing The Radio; Jones, Mayberry, and Scott are soulful and sassy and shine in Bethany Deal’s 60’s costumes. The glorious Jacqueline Dennis wears Deal’s costume proud as she oversees the show playing the Moon. Deal had each of the fantastical characters dressed as historical figures including Ivy as the activist, Joesphine Baker. The Bus is played by the stellar Martin Bell who is decked out in a white clever uniform as he sings his theme “The Bus” with his deep baritone charm.
The Gellman family includes Judy and Matt Beall as the Jewish grandparents, and family friend Mr Stopnick played by the fisty Michael Demartini. The second act heats up as the family fights over a $20.00 bill Stopnick gives Noah. His dad Stuart is played by the authentic Roy Eikeberry, he sings “Stuart And Noah” as he tries to give his son more responsibilities.
Caroline's best friend Dotty is played by the terrific Phaedra Tillery who sings “Dotty and Emmie” with Dyson who both brought the sold out opening night audience to cheers. Music Director David Moschler mastered the demanding score that calls for a rousing rhythm and blues and iconic Klezmer Jewish tunes beautifully played by his 14 member orchestra. Award winning set designer Kuo-Hao Lo has crafted a two story set including the orchestra up stage and the deep basement down stage.
Kevin Myrick’s lighting design is centered around the glowing moon that shines during most of the two hour musical. The moon silhouettes Jacqueline Dennis as she honors Harriet Tubman and Myrick’s stunning lighting brings the story home. Sound designer Jerry Girard and sound engineers Anton Hedman and Toni Babbitt mix the varied score to lift the basement set to your seat. Stage Manager Lori Fowler and her crew move the large 17 member cast on and off the busy set with ease.
Director Jenn Bevard brings CAROLINE OR CHANGE the social and personal transformations wrought by the civil rights movement. She kept the story moving and let her actors effectively tell the moving story. Noah lives in that grey space between open-hearted, sensitive and entitled. Kushner has written about the autobiographical overlap between him and Noah’s childhoods. Kushner’s dad played the clarinet, his mom the bassoon. He grew up in Lake Charles, and his mother had a bout with cancer. “Caroline” is a tribute to the real Maudie Lee Davis, the Kushner family’s maid. Kushner portrays the relationship between this diverse woman and the white child she cares for with love and disappointment . He uses his storytelling skills to give audiences a deeply realized character that you will not forget. Next up at RAY OF LIGHT is their annual visit to Dr Frankenburgers Lab THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW that opens Oct 23rd. But in the meantime you can get great discount seats for CAROLINE OR CHANGE at Goldstar.com and Todaytix.com its an evening of musical theatre not to be missed.
RAY OF LIGHT PRESENTS
Caroline or Change
Music by Jeanine Tesori, Book and Lyrics by Tony Kushner
Directed by Jenn BeVard
Music Director: David Möschler, Choreographer: Angel Adedokun
MUST CLOSE Oct 5th
2961 16th Street, San Francisco).
Two hours with one intermission
PHOTOS BY NICK OTTO
VMEDIA ARTS INTERVIEWS SOME OF THE CAST OPENING NIGHT
Noah: Christopher Apy. Caroline: Jasmyne Brice, Grandpa Gellman: Matt Beall.Grandma Gellman: Judy Beall, The Moon: Jacqueline Dennis, Mr. Stopnick: Michael DeMartini
Emmie: Markalia Dyson. Stuart: Roy Eikleberry. The Dryer: Anthone Jackson.Radio: Elizabeth Jones. Washing Machine: Janelle LaSalle, The Radio: Cadarious Mayberry, Rose: Katie Pimentel, The Radio: Majesty Scott. Dotty: Phaedra Tillary The Bus Martin Bell