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
Riccardo Hernández’s set design contains Wolfe’s trademark two-dimensional shape-shifting — the silhouette of a house, a suspended bed, a frame of thicket forest, with shadows yielding to pools of white light, or embellished by washes of rich primary colors.
Tesori has great fun with contrapuntal motifs at a Hanukkah dinner, playfully jumping between the white diners and the black servants with intersections of "Hava Nagila" and the blues. (The scene of fiery political debate contains echoes from James Joyce’s The Dead.) The musical pastiche of anthems and fugues — from Christmas carols, to Mozart, to R&B — keeps melody largely at elbow’s length. But Tesori drops the elbow at strategic moments: The Lake Charles Bus (Cooper) announces Kennedy’s assassination in a ballad that recalls "Old Man River": "The earth has bled! Now come the flood. Apologies for being late, making everybody wait. I am the Orphan Ship of State! Drifting! Driverless! Moving slow ’neath my awful freight of woe."
Grandma and Grandpa Gellman’s (Alice Playten and Reathel Bean) fugue/duet, "JFK, JFK, beat the Russians, saved the day," has such a sudden burst of emotion-inducing melody, you can almost hear Little Orphan Annie crooning "NYC." The showstopper, near play’s end, falls in the middle of Caroline’s regret for sniping at Noah with an anti-Semitic rhetorical bullet. At about this point, Rick Bassett, Joseph Joubert and Buryl Red’s rich orchestration reverts to the tinkling of a piano and the beginning of Caroline’s spiritual: "Murder me God down in that basement, murder my dreams so I stop wantin’. Tear out my heart, strangle my soul, turn me to salt, a pillar of salt. Don’t let my sorrow make evil of me."
The musical could have, should have, ended right there, where it cuts to the marrow of Caroline’s woe and self-knowledge. Dramatically, there is no place else to go, but it keeps going anyway, with an extended epilogue devoted to Caroline’s children, and the prospect of social transformation. This excess can be attributed to a combination of Kushner’s chronic political optimism and showman Wolfe’s instinct that you win Tony Awards by ending with uplift, not paradox.
Still, this is the most beautiful, soulful and smart musical to roll through these parts in a long time — poetry in motion, actually. Amid an excellent ensemble, Pinkins’ glaring Caroline shows the amazing palate of emotional hues residing between stoicism and despair. Platt’s Noah (he alternates with Sy Adamowsky) also turns melancholy into a theatrical virtue, and Cox’s Rose is nicely clipped and torn.
EVER SINCE THE DAYS ofShow Boat — which ached to turn the American musical away from vaudeville and toward grand opera — the genre has sustained dual branches: plays whose first aim is to peer into darkness and shed some light while dipping into humor, and those whose driving purpose is to offer comedic/exotic diversions from life’s drudgeries, while maybe dipping into small puddles of pain. The two branches certainly share elements of both art and entertainment, but their primary motives are as distinctive as Porgy and Bessis from South Pacific.
There’s no question on which branch Carolinehas -flowered. Kushner’s play holds a flashlight’s beam into the darkest recesses of the American psyche in general, and of his central character’s in particular. Caroline’s detractors complain of stasis when, in fact, Kushner’s action is the movement of the light. To this aim, he shows a singularity of purpose and his usual penetrating wisdom.
But I envy Kushner’s belief in social progress, embodied by the image of Caroline’s daughter, Emmie (Anika Noni Rose), helping tear down the statue of a Confederate bigot. It’s a bit like Athol Fugard, still basking in the glow of apartheid’s collapse. But look at South Africa now. Then look to America, and ask if Camelot is the norm or the aberration in the flow of our history. Kushner’s epilogue was supposed to show Camelot as a beacon of possibility. Instead, it filled me with almost unbearable sadness.
CAROLINE, OR CHANGE| By TONY KUSHNER and JEANINE TESORI At the AHMANSON THEATER, MUSIC CENTER, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | Through December 26 | (213) 628-2772