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Sweet Caroline

Playhouse scores with Caroline, or Change.

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There's no justice in the world. The insipid Cats can run for decades and yet the soulful, Tony Award-winning musical Caroline, or Change only got 136 performances after it transferred to Broadway in 2004. True, reviews of the show were mixed, though generally (and sometimes overwhelmingly) positive. But even the critics who raved about the show's great potential had a difficult time relating to singing laundry appliances that look like Little Richard and the Supremes. They had an even harder time relating to Caroline Thibodeaux, the show's gruff and unsmiling central character, whose emotional range has been limited, both by choice and circumstance, from mad to mad as hell. In spite of these nearly universal complaints, there was a consensus that Caroline's creators — Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori — had transcended the musical genre to create a unique and important work of art. Playhouse on the Square's production of Caroline is equal parts grit and sparkle, and it more than lives up to the complex and thoroughly rewarding work's ever-growing reputation.

Some have called Kushner's deceptively simple story "humorless," but nothing could be further from the truth. There's a sly thematic joke that runs from beginning to end. Simply said, Caroline, or Change is a Walt Disney cartoon in reverse. Like her paler predecessors Cinderella and Snow White, Caroline is a potentially beautiful soul who has been relegated by fate to a life of drudgery — cooking, cleaning, and doing laundry for a paltry $30 a week. Her abusive husband has left her; her oldest son's in Vietnam. Her daughters are caught up in the youth movement and potentially involved in the disappearance of a Confederate war hero's statue. In the basement of her employers' house, Caroline sings to the washer, the dryer, and the radio, all of which spring to ominous anthropomorphic life and answer Caroline with escapist Motown fantasies and dark, despairing blues. Even the cool moon has a baleful melody to share.

Set in St. Charles, Louisiana, against the turbulent background of the civil rights movement and in the days leading up to and following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Caroline, or Change addresses some of the least overt but no less corrosive elements of racism in America, and it does so by bringing many vocal perspectives to what is essentially one long, ever-evolving song.

Caroline's employers, a Jewish family with their own share of tragedy, are hardly rich. But Rose (Carla McDonald), the family's newly minted matriarch, knows how galling it must be for the maid to find forgotten change in her stepson Noah's pants pocket as Caroline's doing laundry. To teach Noah a lesson in money management and to give Caroline a bonus the family couldn't otherwise afford, she tells the maid to keep the nickels and dimes she finds. At first, Caroline, who's struggling to raise her family, resists what she calls "stealing pennies from a baby." But she gives in and grows to rely on the extra jingle. Rather than being angered by his stepmother's new rule, young Noah, expertly acted and sung by Sam Shankman, revels in how much his change means to Caroline's family. Until he accidentally leaves a 20-dollar bill in his pocket, that is. Then he turns.

"President Johnson is building a bomb that only kills black people," he screams at the maid. "And I hope he drops it right on top of you."

One has to wonder if the critics would have been so skeptical about the character of Caroline had Playhouse's Illeana Kirven originated the role. She smolders like the one cigarette she allows herself each day, and the fury she conjures up when calling out in song for God to strike her dead is explosive and dangerous. But her exhaustion is as clear as the self-loathing she takes out on everyone else. Kirven's Caroline knows that her attitude is as poisonous as the environment that shaped it, and it's those tragic flashes of self-awareness that make her performance so astonishing.

With Caroline, or Change, director Dave Landis has outdone himself. Landis' greatest gift has been his ability to stage epic musicals in spaces no bigger than a postage stamp. For Caroline, he has reversed the process, making Playhouse's ample stage seem claustrophobic. He makes this cramped, humid, Louisiana laundry room, full of cramped, humid emotions and soaring mid-century soul, ground zero in the struggle for racial equality and economic parity. And he does it with a touch so light you barely know you're being schooled.

Caroline, or Change at Playhouse on the Square through June 3rd

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