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Misery Loves Caroline

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 Change pivots 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 PLOT anchors 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 Caroline from much the same bet.

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 of Show 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 Bess is from South Pacific.

There’s no question on which branch Caroline has -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