Sweet Caroline

If there’s a criticism to be leveled at Black Theatre Troupe for presenting Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change, it’s that attempting such a challenging piece of theater seems imprudent of any company that has failed in the past with musicals only half as complicated. But artistic director David J. Hemphill clearly knew what he was in for here; his seamless direction of this complex story and his wisdom in casting the magnificent Taylore Mahogany Scott in the title role make for a memorable and very successful evening of theater.

From the moment Scott appears, bathed in angelic light from on high, in the first seconds of Kushner’s sung-through musical (scored by Jeanine Tesori), she is utterly captivating. Her Caroline Thibodeaux is such a complete creation — a sassy, stoic woman bursting with passion and anger; an undereducated housekeeper overflowing with insights into the changing world around her — that I found myself leaning forward during her performance, straining not to miss a single moment of emotion, a single one of the beautiful, bell-like notes she was singing. When the dam of Caroline’s pent-up anger finally bursts, late in Act Two, Scott practically levitates with ferocity. It’s a stunning moment.

The “change” in Kushner’s title belongs not only to Caroline, an African-American maid working for a Jewish family in 1963 Louisiana, but to a nation foundering after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Her employer’s 9-year-old son, Noah, hasn’t heard of the civil rights movement, but he knows that he loves Caroline, who rarely has a kind word for him. She’s too busy with her washing machine and dryer, both of them sung by live performers, and she considers her radio (sung by a trio of Supremes-inspired girl singers) her only friend here. It’s Noah’s change, too — the money he leaves in his pockets and that his stepmother asks Caroline to keep, hoping to teach Noah the value of a dollar — that propels this story of lost love and how it informs our lives.

Where a performer of Conner Patrick Wareing’s tender years comes up with such large talent and such deep insight into a child like Noah Gellman is anyone’s guess. Watching him perform without a hint of precocity, and singing pages of rhyming text without so much as a trace of self-consciousness, I felt I was watching a great performer in the making. Also engaging were Piper Davis as Caroline’s friend, Dotty, and Elizabeth Peterson as Noah’s uptight stepmother.

Hemphill has directed these and a dozen other players on a sprawling set that makes good use of the great expanse of the John Paul Theatre’s stage, a stage so vast that it unfortunately swallows up much of the music provided by Debra Jo Davey’s excellent 10-piece orchestra. But not even lousy acoustics can sink this impressive production, expertly directed by Hemphill and anchored by the marvelous Miss Scott. Let’s hear it for imprudence.