Caroline or Change, A CurtainUp Philadelphia review, CurtainUp

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A CurtainUp Review
Caroline or Change

You left that money in your clothes. Easy comes and easy goes — Caroline
Thursday Farrar as The Moon in  Caroline or Change
Thursday Farrar as The Moon in Caroline or Change.
(Photo: Mark Garvin)

Musical theater can be movies reworked for the stage. Or, it may be fun but too lightweight to hold up well, like Adrift in Macao. Then some shows are essentially song lists disguised as glitzy bios. But withCaroline or Change Tony Kushner and Jeannine Tesori show us how musical theater can be done. The storyline can be found in our reviews of NYC productions (NY Reviews).

These days we want more density in our art. We prefer substance and want to experience theater being theater again, not trying to be film or weekly TV. Kushner and Tesori energize the form, crafting first rate musical theater by wrapping bits of life, personal politics, wishes, appliances, frogs, and odds and ends in stunning music. Kushner, with his sometimes purposefully studied and mundane and sometimes totally unexpected lyrics, has out-Sondheimed Sondheim.

Caroline (Joilet F. Harris), full of anger, attitude, and regret is a refreshing and aware character, who (thank God, Kushner, Harris, and director Nolen), does not play the big mama "acting out" that we all have seen ad nauseam in movies and on the stage. And Joilet Harris can sing her heart out and yours as well. Speaking of gifted, young Elyse McKay Taylor as daughter, Emmie, is a marvelous actress and singer. Griffin Back ably handles the lead boy role of Noah, and Nicholas Blake Trawick and Malik Burrell who play Caroline's sons, are adorable. Grownups are all good too, particularly Sherri L. Edelen as the unloved stepmother, Rose.

The composer shouldn't miss the Arden's production, as she would enjoy Eric Ebbenga's music design and the performance of her work turned in by the unseen orchestra. The scenic design by James Kronzer, brilliantly creative and successful, invites the non-literal to invade the real. Deep, tall, and multi-layered, the set is both space-specific and non specific, providing a fine frame for the emotionally charged and the fun elements of the work. The illumination achieved by Justin Townsend is just perfect, and its importance can not be overestimated. The choreography by Hobbs is divine and makes the show pop with life.

Kushner's personification of the washer and dryer, radio, moon, and a mournful bus is an inspired idea, and this production revels in the fun of bringing these objects vividly to life. McKelvey carries out the costume assignment with panache: For example, Ade Laoye is heavenly as the washing machine in a pastel costume of diaphanous, almost sudsy fabric draped with nylon stockings, while the dryer, Jay Pierce is solid in a diabolical red lounge singer's jacket. The radio trio who supply advice and the soundtrack running through Caroline's head (Tallia Brinson, Danielle Herbert, Marsha Lawson) not only sound fabulous, they look fabulous in their girl group radio dresses. The Moon (Thursday Farrar) is a timeless vision out of the pages of an art book as she is silhouetted against a glowing moon.

Thanks to the agile mind of Tony Kushner, the phenomenal musicality of Jeannine Tesori, the finely honed instincts of veteran director Terrence J. Nolen, and the wonderful designers and cast, the Philadelphia premiere of Caroline or Change is one heck of a show, just the kind of rare experience we go to the theater hoping to find.

Caroline or Change
Book & lyrics by Tony Kushner
Music by Jeannine Tesori
Directed by Terrence J. Nolen

Cast: Joilet F. Harris, Ade Laoye, Tallia Brinson, Danielle Herbert, Marsha Lawson, Griffin Back, Jay Pierce, Maureen Torsney-Weir, Russell Leib, Sherri L. Edelen, Adam Heller, Kelly J. Rucker, Thursday Farrar, Elyse McKay Taylor, Nicholas Blake Trawick, Malik Burrell, Alan Kutner
Music Design: Eric Ebbenga
Scenic Design: James Kronzer
Lighting Design: Justin Townsend
Sound Design: Jorge Cousineau
Costume Design: Rosemarie E. McKelvey
Choreographer: Patricia Scott Hobbs Running time: 2 hour and 15 minutes with one 15 minute intermission
The Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2nd Street
03/0807 to 04/08/07; opening 03/14/07
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on O3/14/07 performance.
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