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Photograph by David Allen
THE VALUE OF MONEY: Caroline (C. Kelly Wright) makes a point about savings to young Noah (Julian Hornik).

Pocket Musical

Fine singing can't disguise an underdeveloped plot in 'Caroline, or Change'

By Marianne Messina

IN SPITE of some promising ideas, incredible singing and one or two misty moments, TheatreWorks' Caroline, or Change plays like a pastiche of plot treatments thrown together without development. Black single mom Caroline (C. Kelly Wright), the maid in an early-'60s Jewish household, feels locked unfairly into a joyless life. Caroline's peppy, sassy daughter, Emmie (Valisia LeKae), is exercising the freedom promised by the Civil Rights movement, and Caroline's best friend, Dotty (Allison Blackwell), is going to college. Meanwhile, the lady of the house, Rose (Eileen Tepper), has moved from New York City to small-town Louisiana to marry a man whose grief she shares (this move never comes to make sense)—his recently deceased wife was her best friend. Now motherless, young Noah (Julian Hornik) can't get used to his new stepmother, Rose. And that opening synopsis is almost where we leave everybody, two overly musicated hours later.

The idea that Noah's abandoned pocket change—which Rose encourages Caroline to take home—might bring about change in Caroline's life initiates an intriguing story line that gets dropped. One can only hope this fragmented, unfocused Civil Rights–era Clara's Heart is still a work-in-progress. Writers Tony Kushner (book/lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (music) do light up the stage with some creative devices, like the folk-tale personification of Washing Machine (Allison Blackwell dressed like a walking clothes line by costumer Fumiko Bielefeldt) and Dryer (James Monroe Iglehart in shirt and shoes of heating-element red).

The music and staging reach their summit in complex trio numbers. For instance, we meet Caroline in the basement singing her blues while from a platform overhead, three dazzling, red-clad Supremes-like singers called "The Radio" (Marsha Lawson, Adrienne Muller, Dawn L. Troupe) sing a pop, upbeat melody. Adding another voice, Washing Machine sings her humorous commentary, gospel and hopeful. Also a delight whenever she's onstage is Anise Ritchie as the Moon, mystical symbol of change. Dressed in sparkling, one-shouldered gowns and often looking like a fairy godmother, the Moon has the benefit of a lovely night time—Caroline's favorite time—ambience created by the TheatreWorks production team. Ritchie sings before a grand, soft-lit full moon (J.B. Wilson's sparse but evocative scenery) among fireflies (of lighting designer Pamila Gray) and croaking nighttime frogs (Cliff Caruthers, sound). This warm Louisiana night is a place where all possibilities—Dotty's, Emmie's and Caroline's—exist.

Another bright production element is PJay Phillips' choreography, particularly the hand movements. They suggest a watery medium, like the ever-cycling waves of change and the underwater basement endlessly inhabiting Caroline's lyrics. A lot of strong singing talent is expended in this vehicle. LeKae lends Emmie the bright charm of a flexible voice. Anise Ritchie sings a fluid, inspiring Moon. Wright capably belts spit and pain into her world of hurt. And occasionally, welcomed humor pokes through. The fairly vacuous, if not well-intentioned, Rose has some funny arguments with her leftist activist father (Randy Nazarian). While Caroline, or Change is a well-performed and executed production, the book, lyrics and music need a serious trip back to the drawing (and cutting) board.

CAROLINE, OR CHANGE, a TheatreWorks production, plays Tuesday–Wednesday at 7:30pm, Thursday–Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2 and 8pm (8pm only April 12 and 19) and Sunday at 2 and 7pm (2pm only April 13) through April 27 at the Mountain view Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $25–$61. (650.903.6000).

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