By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Photo by Michal DanielIn short, there’s simply not A more congenial spot, For happy-ever-aftering Than here in Camelot.
—Lerner and Loewe
What a miserable pair:the angriest maid in Louisiana, and the dourest little boy, who lives in the house where she works. She’s black and impoverished; he’s white, Jewish and privileged. It’s November 1963. Even in the swamps of Lake Charles, you can hear the gunshots from Dallas, the felling of the president and, with it, the beginning of the end of Camelot.
Against this backdrop in Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s surprisingly exuberant musical, Caroline, or Change (now at the Ahmanson, imported almost intact from Broadway), and partly based on Kushner’s childhood, Caroline, the maid (Tonya Pinkins), laments the absence of the husband who beat her, and the burden of rearing three children on $30 per week. (The fourth is fighting in Vietnam.) Meanwhile, in more financially stable circumstances, 9-year-old Noah Gellman (Benjamin Platt) yearns for his mother, dead from cancer, and the attentions of his ever-more-reclusive father, who finds refuge in an upstage bedroom, piping out his own grief on a clarinet.
Caroline, or Changepivots and catapults from the duo of Caroline and Noah. They, like everyone else, mostly sing rather than speak, and in motifs rather than through melodies. The reason for this makes perfect sense: Their mutual despondency is operatic. In fact, she can hardly stand the kid, who hangs on to her like a wet scarf. Their emotional friction rattles louder than spoken speech. No way is she going to chatter amiably to anyone until, reaching fever pitch, she breaks into song about her ex: "I’m going to wash that man right out of my hair." Caroline had probably reached this fever pitch by the ’50s. That man is still in her hair like dry dung. She’s been living with the lingering stink, and scrubbing for years to no effect, and she’s exhausted. All she’s got left is the seething rage from squandered hopes and insufficient funds, and of course she’s got the church.
One day, Noah’s stepmother, Rose (Veanna Cox), vexed by the boy’s cavalier treatment of money (which he leaves in pockets stuffed in the laundry), offers to Caroline any small change she finds in Noah’s dirty trousers — a quarter here, a nickel there. There could probably be no gesture more well-meaning and insulting at the same time, no charity more emblematic of American apartheid. As in Mamet’s American Buffalo, money is a great divider; the smaller the change, the higher the wall it represents. Caroline’s no fool. Scrounging for pennies, she gets the metaphor. At first she deposits the found change in an empty bleach jar, to be returned. Noah, however, leaves change deliberately, hoping it will fall into the hands of Caroline’s children — a family he prefers to his own, at least in his fantasy. Eventually, Caroline takes the bait. Her son needs dental work, and she’s behind on the rent.
With Hanukkah comes Rose’s father, Grandpa Stopnick (Larry Keith), an old communist from New York City, who presents Noah with a season’s greeting: a $20 bill — but not before a lecture on how "you rip your gold from a starving man’s mouth." (Rose chides her father to shut up and just give the boy his present.) After Noah accidentally leaves the bill in his trousers, and wants it back from Caroline, the result is an emotional atomic bomb.
THIS WISP OF A PLOTanchors what’s really a whompin’ American hymn: half gospel, half davening, an ode to despair and a prayer for deliverance that marks a kind of culminating synthesis of two remarkable talents — those of Kushner and director George C. Wolfe. With Tesori, the pair shaped this musical through months of workshops at the New York Public Theater.
Wolfe’s influence is indelible. If you’ve ever seen his early play The Colored Museum, you’ll recognize his penchant for turning inanimate objects into characters. In The Colored Museum, there were talking hairpieces. Here, we have a gyrating washing machine (Capathia Jenkins, who floats above the grubby appliance like Aunt Jemimah); the radio — a glittery, doo-wopping Supremes-like trio (Tracy Nicole Chapman, Marva Hicks and Kenna Ramsey) sashaying across the stage in glittery golden wraps; and a green-lit demonic dryer (Chuck Cooper), who keeps pecking at Caroline’s frustrations. Finally there’s the gal in the moon (Aisha de Haas), waxing and waning and watching the small change in Caroline’s fist, and the big change in America’s soul. All of these animations poke into the swamp of Caroline’s life while providing vibrancy and tenderness to an otherwise solemn journey.
Wolfe also created Bring In ’da Noise, Bring In ’da Funk, which is really The Colored Museum— a history of African America — set to music and dance. Noise/Funk had no plot, just the progression of history. The entire spectacle was wagered on the premise that oppression and fury breed the most resonant and joyous music and dance. Wolfe stages Carolinefrom much the same bet.