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'Hamilton' is Monumental, but 'Caroline, or Change' Ticks a Lot of the Same Boxes 

Okay, I know what you're doing. You're sitting in the corner of your closet, morose that you weren't able to score tickets to see Hamilton. You've finished off that pint bottle of apricot brandy that was collecting dust in your cupboard, and it dangles from your limp left hand even as your right hand clutches to your chest your tattered childhood rag doll Bitsy. However, Bitsy isn't helping this time. All is lost.

But wait! There is a glimmer of hope for that part of your play-going psyche that longs to see a superior musical that features excellent singing voices and a story that is poignant, historically significant, and intermittently amusing. A musical that features non-white performers singing a volley of songs (even more than Hamilton!) that continually captivate.

So you should emerge from that closet, my friend, and experience the outstanding musical Caroline, or Change, now being staged by the Mercury Theatre Company. Like Hamilton, this work boasts splendid authorship, since Tony Kushner wrote the book and lyrics and Jeanine Tesori penned the score (uncredited in the program). As you know, Kushner created Angels in America and Tesori wrote the original score for Fun Home, so these ain't no slouches.

Structured as a fable of sorts, the mostly sung-through show focuses on a number of people who are emotionally challenged. Prime among them is Caroline Thibodeaux, a single black mother with three kids who works as a maid for the Jewish Gellman family in Lake Charles, Louisiana, in 1963. She is righteously pissed at how her life has turned out, and she doesn't try to hide it — often glowering at the members of the family for whom she does the cooking and laundry.

True to the fable form, there are inanimate objects that speak and sing to Caroline, including the washing machine (Lynette Turner, who also doubles as the Moon), an electric clothes dryer (dynamically performed in all the drying cycle settings by Derrick Cobey, who also plays Caroline's ex), and the radio that is always playing African-American music in the basement laundry room. During daytime hours, the appliances sing along with Caroline; at night, the Moon chimes in with her own musical commentary.

Surely the most compelling relationship in the play is between Caroline and Noah, the 8-year-old son of his widowed dad, Stuart, (Brian Marshall) and Stu's new wife, Rose (Emily Grodzik). Still-grieving Stu is self-absorbed as he laments the loss of his first wife, and Rose is still spinning her wheels in an attempt to relate to her stepson. So Noah becomes fascinated with Caroline, mistaking her deep sadness for towering strength. As Noah, young Kyle Monaghan emphasizes the youngster's tender vulnerability rather than the character's tendency to disrupt the status quo, and he is effective throughout.

This exquisitely designed play deals with big issues, but often through a micro lens. After Caroline and her maid pal Dotty (Colleen Longshaw) learn of JFK's assassination while they're on a bus going home, the loss of hope is tangible. Some of that disconnect is symbolized by a dustup Rose has with Caroline over loose change that Caroline finds in the pockets of Noah's pants. Rose wants Caroline to keep the coins, to teach Noah a lesson. But Caroline sees this as just another affront to her dignity, pocketing the chump change with a scowl. Meanwhile Caroline's teenage daughter Emmie (Jyrah Graves) is unsympathetic about her mother's status in life, unaware of the emotional burden mom carries.

This is all elucidated in Kushner's libretto and Tesori's score that ranges from operatic arias to Chanukah tunes to black soul riffs. Even though many of the lyrics are blurred at times when multiple singers are overlapping, the story they are telling shines through. And musical director Eddie Carney manages to generate some lush and powerful accompaniment from his five-piece orchestra.

But let's pause here and recognize the remarkable performance by Kelvette Beacham as Caroline. A long-time member of the Mercury company, the often upbeat and smiling Beacham is a true force of nature in this role, anchoring this conflicted and tormented character both physically and with her stunningly powerful voice. In one of her final songs, Beacham rips the heart out of "Lot's Wife" when she laments her weaknesses and confusion over what God wants from her. Murder me God, down in that basement/Murder my dreams so I stop wantin'/Murder my hope of him returnin'/Strangle the pride that make me crazy.

Sure, there are a few small wrinkles in this production, since some of the younger actors aren't quite up to the task of handling this demanding score. But director Pierre-Jacques Brault keeps this chamber piece active by moving his actors around the large stage, even finding a way to create a rainstorm near the conclusion of the play.

This production is a fitting cap to Mercury's 20th summer season of often extraordinary theatrical productions. So if you're still jonesing for a Hamilton-style fix, grab a seat for one of the concluding performances of Caroline, or Change. As Alexander H. would say, don't miss your shot.


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