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Review: Caroline, or Change 

JPAS and Loyola University present Tony Kushner’s musical

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Photo by Joshua Frederick

Musicals don't often wrestle with weighty societal issues, but Caroline, or Change takes on civil rights, low wages and oppression, setting its story to a wide array of American music, including blues, spirituals, Motown, klezmer and folk, scored by one of Broadway's most accomplished composers, Jeanine Tesori. With poignant lyrics and book by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes), masterfully presented by Jefferson Performing Arts Society and Loyola University's Department of Theatre Arts and Dance, Caroline, or Change is one of the season's most powerful productions.

  In 1963, the year of John F. Kennedy's assassination, Caroline Thibodeaux (Troi Bechet) is working as a maid for a middle-class Jewish family in Lake Charles. Bechet's heart-rending opening number underscores the need for social change. She sings: "Nothin' ever happened underground in Louisiana. 'Cause there ain't no underground in Louisiana. There is only underwater." For Caroline, there's no escaping servitude. Kennedy had inspired great optimism but now that hope is dashed. "Friend to the colored, friend to the Jew ... We shall not see his like again," sing grandmother and grandfather Gellman (Francine Segal and Martin Covert).

  A divorced mother, Caroline is paid $40 per week, barely enough to feed her three kids. In the Gellman family's basement, she washes and irons clothes while dreaming of Nat King Cole and sneaking a cigarette shared with the Gellman's son Noah (Kristen Swanson). Her constant companions are anthropomorphized appliances, a bubbly washing machine (Kyler Jett), red hot dryer (Isaiah Aaron Jones) and radio trio (Talia Moore, Cereyna Bougouneau and Kharissa Newbill), who harmonically commiserate with Caroline under the apt musical direction of Loyola's Donna Clavijo.

  As a boy, Kushner lived in Lake Charles and his father played clarinet, as does Caroline's Stuart Gellman (Mark Weinberg). Stuart constantly practices, rarely engaging with his son or wife. Instead, Noah forms a bond with Caroline, whom his deceased mother called, "implacable" and "indestructible." His new stepmother Rose (Anja Mayer-Avsharian) focuses on teaching Noah to value money, scolding him for leaving coins in his pockets when putting his pants in the laundry. Rose condescendingly offers the boy's loose change to Caroline, and we see the indignities the maid silently endures. Rose cannot understand why Caroline never smiles.

  The multilevel set designed by Marty Aikens, Loyola's scenic designer, allows the audience to see the entire household at once, with each family member sequestered in a corner. When a fence is lowered onto the stage, it divides the Gellman home from the sidewalk where black domestic workers wait for a bus.

  Loyola University's young talent is magnificent under the direction of Laura Hope, including Swanson as the lonely boy who would rather live in Caroline's home, and Mayer-Avsharian, who is frustratingly incapable of grasping another person's needs.

  Caroline appears defeated yet defiant. Her brash teenage daughter Emmie (Charis Michelle Gullage) is determined to overcome the overwhelming obstacles that hold her mother back. Change is going to come.

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