THEATER | Guthrie’s “Caroline, or Change”: Both, please!

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Thanks are due to whoever told the Twin Cities’ behemoth cultural institutions that it was okay to have some fun this spring. With The Quick and the Dead and Caroline, or Change, the Walker and the Guthrie (respectively) have mounted ambitious, serious-minded shows that are also very, very easy to enjoy.

Caroline, or Change is part of the Guthrie’s “Everything Kushner” festival, which feaures other Tony Kushner plays including the upcoming world premiere of The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures. The musical Caroline—Kushner wrote the book and lyrics; the music is by Jeanine Tesori—debuted in New York in 2003 and has earned the stature of a 21st century classic. It’s a remarkable creation, and at the Guthrie, director Marcela Lorca has done it proud.

caroline, or change, a musical by tony kushner (book, lyrics) and jeanine tesori (music), directed by marcela lorca. presented through june 21 at the guthrie theater, 818 s. 2nd st., minneapolis. for tickets ($34-$65) and information, see guthrietheater.org.

In Caroline, Kushner addresses the great American themes—race, class, and comic books—in a simple story about a collection of characters inspired by Kushner’s own childhood experiences in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Caroline (Greta Oglesby) is a black maid employed by the white Gellmans (Bradley Greenwald and Julie Reiber), serving as a semi-willing mother figure to their son Noah (Ryan McDowell Poehler) even as the divorced Caroline struggles to raise three children of her own. When Rose Gellman decides to punish Noah for being careless with his money, she instructs Caroline to keep any change left in Noah’s pockets when Caroline does the laundry. Caroline’s struggle for personal independence is presented against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement—a sweeping transformation the implications of which the damaged, cautious Caroline is slow to accept—and change thus becomes the play’s principal theme as well as its literal subject. (The plot overall is fresh and pleasantly unpredictable, but the audience members who were audibly surprised at a particular development involving a $20 bill must see a lot of really experimental plays where guns in the first act never go off in the third.)

The musical is through-composed, meaning that characters speak/sing their way through the entire production. This is how most post-Mozart operas work, but not most Broadway musicals; some examples of the form (Miss Saigon, the longest eight hours of my life) make my skin crawl. Tesori very effectively uses the music and rhythms of African-American music (with a little klezmer thrown in for good measure) to underline and propel Kushner’s lyrics and dialogue. To a one, the Guthrie cast members—particularly Oglesby and Nikki Renée Daniels, who plays Caroline’s daughter—have powerful voices, and they glide from one sweet spot to another. Oglesby is pitch-perfect as Caroline, battling her own despair, and the other cast members are equally disciplined in showing the restraint this material demands. The Guthrie’s recent production of A Delicate Balance is a cautionary example of the dangers of overplaying both humor and pathos; Caroline is all the funnier, and more moving, because the actors don’t treat their zingers like zingers. The only performer who could perhaps use a little more zing is Greenwald, whose Stuart Gellman is a carbon copy of the tortured father Greenwald recently played in The Making of Americans at the Walker.

Even though the scrim’s Impressionistic rendering of the night sky might remind you of your orthodontist’s wallpaper, the set is effective and—by Wurtele Thrust standards—minimally mobile. Elements of what Lorca’s program notes suggest she regards as magical realism are represented by actors personifying the radio, the moon, a bus, and a couple of household appliances; T. Mychael Rambo’s sinewy portrayal of the dryer may cause partisans of spin cycle recreation to question their laundry room loyalties.

Jay Gabler is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.

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