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Caroline, or Change

Not Necessarily with the Quintessential Happy Ending, But Done with Heart

As anyone who has seen or read "Angels in America" can tell you, Tony Kushner doesn't shy away from ugly juxtapositions, elaborate set pieces, loose ends, intersecting story lines, parallel story lines, biting humor, and moments of shattering revelation, voiced by people who speak the overwrought dialogue so effective on stage. Kushner composes complicated plays and has no problem giving the audience unhappy endings.

How, then, would Kushner write a musical?

Well, with the help of Jeanine Tesori., who has composed the music for Broadway hits such as "Thoroughly Modern Millie", Kushner succeeds in making the story of "Caroline, or Change" lively and entertaining without sacrificing the nuance which marked his previous works. If his lyrics fall flat at times, or certain plot points fail to resonate, the performances more than make up for it. San Francisco is lucky to have the production with the New York cast almost completely intact; Tonya Pinkins, as Caroline, inhabits her role completely, filling the auditorium with her awesome voice and staggering stage presence.

"Caroline, or Change" tells the story of a maid, Caroline Thibodeaux, working for a Jewish family in Lake Charles, Louisiana, in 1963 as the country stands at the cusp of great cultural change. Caroline spends most of her time in the basement of the Gellman house, but she is not alone; she has the Washing Machine (Capathia Jenkins, resplendently wrapped in the gauzy fabric of a Voodoo queen), Dryer (Chuck Cooper) and Radio (Tracy Nicole Chapman, Marva Hicks, Kenna Ramsey) in the particularly alluring form of three Motown singers shimmying and wisecracking throughout the play.) Everyday, she allows the young son, Noah Gellman (Benjamin Platt) to light the one cigarette she allows herself. The act is particularly touching since Noah's mother has died in the past year from lung cancer, and his father (David Constabile as Stuart Gellman) has withdrawn from the family, leaving his new wife, Rose Stopnick Gellman (played beautifully by Veanne Cox) to try to make friends with Noah.

Caroline is truculent with the Gellmans, and stern with her own children, her teenage daughter Emmie (Anika Noni Rose, another standout performance), and her young sons Joe and Jackie (Leon G. Thomas III and Corwin Tuggles.) Kushner, using the motif of change, shows how Caroline clings to the past as a survival mechanism even in the face of big change (the Civil Rights movement has already empowered her daughter to voice ambitions Caroline would never have imagined) and small change, the literal small change that Noah leaves in his pockets and Caroline has to decide to either pocket or leave in the bleach cup.

While the relationship between Noah and Caroline feels like a wobbly hook in which to hang the dramatic structure, the overall production is too inspired to fail. The direction by George C. Wolfe and the lovely work done by the lighting, scenic and costume designers let the performances shine. Kushner has written a musical that may not have smug satisfaction of a happy ending but he's written something with just as much heart, and, as the best musical numbers prove, more than enough soul.