Round House Theatre continues its season focus on Tony Kushner with a dazzling production of the visionary and incendiary playwright’s only musical.
Following fall’s scintillating revival of the writer’s two-play epic “Angels in America/Millennium Approaches,” Round House guest director Matthew Gardiner takes on the deeply personal story that draws from Kushner’s early memories of growing up Jewish in New Orleans at the dawn of the Civil Rights movement.
Kushner wrote the 2003 musical, which premiered on Broadway to mixed reviews, with composer Jeanine Tesori, who has threaded a rich palette of musical genres from hearty blues to rollicking klezmer, operatic arias to tightly sung girl group harmonies, into a warmly complex story. In it a boy learns truths about himself and the world as he struggles with personal moral dilemmas that would disquiet most adults.
“Caroline,” then, is both a coming-of-age tale for the mid-20th century and a snapshot of an unsettled era in U.S. history. The play is on stage at Round House in downtown Bethesda through Feb. 26.
Ten-year-old Noah Gellman is adjusting to life after his mother’s death and his father’s remarriage. His nitpicking new stepmother, Rose, has tried to both connect with her new stepson and provide the discipline she believes he needs. His father, Stuart, a clarinetist, has retreated to the sidelines, offering his son and his new wife little solace or love. So Noah turns to the bad-tempered family maid, Caroline, and the two develop a friendship of sorts, sharing conversation and cigarettes in the basement, where she washes, dries and irons endless loads of the Gellman family’s laundry.
That basement — an anomaly in New Orleans, a city where basements are unheard of due to the low water table — thrums with life. Caroline’s imagination works overtime as the washing machine and dryer each are personified. Buxom Theresa Cunningham gives verve to the washer with her sultry voice and swishing hips and torso, while steamy V. Savoy McIlwain, slinky and snake-like, provides the heat beneath his brown fedora as the rumbling, husky-voiced dryer.
The basement for Caroline represents a death of sorts, and yet it’s where Noah comes to thrive on the gritty life forces of her anger and disappointment.
The show’s star and centerpiece Nova Y. Payton plays Caroline as exquisitely nuanced. Her hardened, angry exterior belies the desires, needs and dramas that inhabit her imagination, and that her sensitive young admirer Noah connects to.
A single mother struggling to raise her three children on a $30 a week maid’s salary, Caroline sings of the pain and degradation that is the life of a black woman in the South. She’s too downtrodden to speak up to her superiors, but desires to give her children more than she can possibly afford. Thus, when stepmother Rose decides to teach her forgetful son a lesson by allowing Caroline to keep any loose change the boy leaves in his pockets, the gears of impending conflict are set in motion. And those pennies, nickels and dimes — small change — grow in magnitude, causing a rift that might never heal.
Composer Tesori, whom musical aficionados might know for her bright “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” has written a score that serves Kushner’s storytelling and the characters’ milieu with a meaningful pastiche of numbers. Payton, of course, carries the heavy load with spine-tingling gospel and bluesy numbers that highlight the sharp and muted notes of her voice, and her struggle.
Other vocal standouts in this strongly cast ensemble include Delores King Williams, who as the Moon sings the role of constancy in the guise of operatically influenced solos. Standing high above Jason Sherwood’s rotating three-story house set, she peers down at the unfolding events like a timeless Greek chorus of one. Beside her, above the stage and behind a picket fence, the fine nine-member instrumental ensemble directed by Jon Kalbfleisch plays for Caroline’s and Noah’s worlds, both spinning out of control.
Not only is young Noah teetering in the face of loss, so, too, is Caroline. Her teenage daughter, Emmie (Korinn Walfall), represents the younger more politicized generation, who just saw the Kennedy assassination and has become ready to speak out and act in favor of civil rights.
One of Kushner’s most vivid scenes occurs at a family Chanukah dinner, where amid talk of race relations and communism, Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., tempers flare; daughter Emmie challenges the Gellman family patriarch against her mother’s wishes.
Kushner gives us a less idealized snapshot than is typical when recalling blacks and Jews during the civil rights era. While most Jews, in particular, like to recall staunch support, many stood by and watched the news and listened to the radio.
With “Caroline,” Kushner provides a thinking-person’s musical that wrestles with historic demons — racism and prejudice — that remain a potent and driving force still in 21st-century America. Always of the moment, his plays push us toward our more thoughtful, better selves.
Or, as Caroline resolutely sings: “Change come fast and change come slow but change come.” It’s inevitable, and in this she’s right on the money.
“Caroline, Or Change,” by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori, through Feb. 26, Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. Tickets $36-$90.. Call 240-644-1100 or visit roundhousetheatre.org.