Caroline, or Change

Zach Theatre's fine staging should be required viewing at this historic moment

Arts Review

Caroline, or Change

Zach Theatre, Kleberg Stage, through Nov. 9

Running time: 2 hr, 20 min

Metaphor at its most potent ceases to be metaphor. Instead, it becomes an explosive close-up on life. In the case of Caroline, or Change, pocket change is not a metaphor for tragedy; pocket change is the tragedy – one threading together potent narratives from the 1960s through to this very moment. Zach Theatre's production is that rare work that engages the heart, the mind, and the funny bone.

The musical revolves around Noah Gellman, a young Jewish boy, and Caroline Thibodeaux, an African-American maid who toils in his home's basement – the only one in Louisiana according to the song "16 Feet Beneath the Sea." It is the throbbing stage on which many dramas are set: the death of Noah's mother, the emotional retreat of his father, the poverty of Caroline and her children, the relative liberalism of Noah's stepmother from New York. And hovering at the edge of these stories are the civil rights movement and the assassination of JFK. It feels as if every aspect of love and life is covered in this single piece of theatre. Noah greatly admires Caroline, often referring to her as "President Caroline," but she is the essence of inertia, resisting change, resisting joy, resisting hope, wanting only to sit down for a night that lasts forever. Their stories come to a head when Noah's stepmother tells Caroline to keep any change that Noah forgets to remove from his pockets. Caroline doesn't want to "take pennies from a child," but her weekly salary of $30 just isn't enough. The deep sorrow in the show is offset by its glittering imagination, bringing to life inanimate objects such as the Radio (a girl-group trio), the Washing Machine (a glamorous, chiding observer of Caroline), and the Dryer (an Elvis-like entertainer).

Caroline, or Change is a brilliant opening to Zach's 2008-2009 "season of change." The production, directed by Dave Steakley, is immaculate and does justice to Tony Kushner's words and Jeanine Tesori's music at every turn. Derek Whitener's costumes are luscious. Michael Raiford's set creates a rich, multidimensional world. Jason Amato's lighting will take your breath away as a bus comes to deliver the news of JFK's death or as salt slowly buries the basement. Veteran performer Janis Stinson and young Matthew Moore anchor the production with ferocity. Shavana Calder is captivating as Caroline's daughter. Meredith McCall injects a great deal of heart into Noah's stepmother. Sarah Yvonne Jones creates two very distinct characters in the Washing Machine and Dotty, an African-American woman going to night school. The Dryer and the Bus, as played by Frank Viveros, are vivid and heart-wrenching. Every aspect of the show is finely tuned, from the music to the design to the performances. Zach is a gem of a regional theatre, bringing important contemporary works to Austin, staging them in accomplished and entertaining productions, and providing excellent roles for women and minorities.

There is a prophetic quality to Caroline, or Change, which Kushner completed in 2003. Before Hurricane Katrina. Before the nomination of Barack Obama. Yet it's as if he is speaking directly to those profound events. Indeed, the show feels so relevant that he might have been writing it backstage. As our country barrels toward the possible election of our first African-American president, it faces another in the eternal series of choices between tolerance and intolerance. Caroline, or Change should be required viewing for anyone who wants to be not just a citizen but a participant in this many-throated nation. One of the show's refrains sums it up best: "Change come fast and change come slow, but change come."

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Caroline, or Change, Tony Kushner, Jeanine Tesori, Zach Theatre, Dave Steakley, Jason Amato, Michael Raiford, Janis Stinson, Meredith McCall

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