Caroline, or Change at Center Stage

By Ben Ryland

 

If you have seen the wonderful documentary- Show Business: The Road To Broadway, it features Caroline, or Change along with the other nominees for the Best Musical Tony Award in 2005. The film follows the development of the show from inception to Tony night where it was a front runner more for its leading actress, the critic’s darling- Tonya Pinkins, than the show itself. The award went to Idina Menzel for WICKED the popular audience choice instead.

 

Caroline is a domestic for a Jewish family living in Louisiana in 1963. Try as they might to show equality to the woman in the turmoil and civil rights changes of the 60’s the family members are all left feet towards her. To teach their son to be more careful with his pocket money they offer the maid the coins in his pockets on laundry day instead of a raise. Caroline stubbornly resists the changes in the country failing to improve herself with new found opportunities even though friends are going to school and trading up jobs. She is borderline self-destructive towards most barring God and her own children’s dreams.

 

Playwright Tony Kushner and composer Jeanine Tesori have attempted to tell a story of the times through those who accept or ignore change but the storyline only works on a superficial level. This is not an epic musical like Ragtime; this is more observational than reactionary and on a tiny scale.

 

One would assume that the popularity of the show is based on the staging, acting and the dynamics of the leading lady. With singing and dancing laundry appliances in the basement they are Caroline’s connection with the real world and its changes, not just the change in the kid’s pants pockets. The Supremes style singing group on the radio and on stage moves the story along more than the protagonist; a device that is limited and ultimately unfulfilling dramatically.

 

The staging here is the best part of the production along with the cast who can act and sing their underwritten roles. Directed by Baltimore native David Schweizer, he appears to know the limitations of the work but uses it to his best advantage. Regional theatre actress E. Faye Butler (fresh off her acclaimed run of the show in Chicago) breathes life into the role and sings the hell out of it too. Future directors take heed: Butler is astounding as Caroline and worth the price of a ticket. The rest of the cast with one exception is up to the task, but it’s Butler that brings the audience to their feet.

 

Caroline, or Change    CenterStage, 700 North Calvert Street, Baltimore

Now until January 18th

Tickets: www.centerstage.org

 

 

 

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Signature Theatre Les Miserables

les-miz-signature-21

Truth in Advertising?

By Ben Ryland

 

Only a few theatres have been granted performance rights to Les Miz, and those have been selected by producer Cameron Macintosh based on their reconceiving the original staging.

The nationally-acclaimed Signature Theatre just south of DC in booming Arlington was one of the chosen few.

 

Earlier this year the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia did the show in a thrilling, heart-wrenching production that was a total sell-out for the entire summer. Unhappily, despite raves from most of Washington’s theatre critics, the production at Signature has a lot to be desired.

 

From the moment one enters the theatre you are in the world of the 19th century underbelly of France. Director Eric Schaeffer has declined to discuss the money spent but with a larger than normal orchestra, more than a hundred costumes and a cast of dozens of equity actors it was a small fortune.

 

The question of what you are in for at this Les Miz is immediate. The stylized set is a cross between a ravaged junkyard and a steel roller coaster accident and makes no sense. In the first scene the prisoners are at hard labor for their crimes; shown as pulling ropes with chairs attached up and down. Was Schaeffer’s vision a stylized version? If so, then why does he jump back and forth between the stylistic and realistic? And be forewarned fans of the show- there is not a turntable barricade. There wasn’t one in Philly either only here it is sorely missed.

 

The cast consists of local professional actors from past Signature, Toby’s Dinner Theatre and Olney Theatre productions; but most of the leads are Broadway/ Road tour veterans who add nothing to the mix. Greg Stone was a weak Jean Valjean but maybe he was having an off night.

Tom Zemon seemed to be performing in Jesus Christ Superstar but singing the role of Javert.

Locals Andrew Call as Marius handled the role well & Christopher Bloch is having fun as innkeeper Thenardier and is the only one onstage that impressed me as he often does. Chris Sizemore is full of piss and vinegar as Enjolas when he should have been cast as Valjean (however he is a might young for the role). Felicia Curry plays Eponine, not as twitter pated for Marius but instead a crazy, stone-eyed stalker. The less said about the other women roles the better. Of course most can all sing the roof off the place but Les Miserable requires a lot more.

 

The costumes are appropriate rags for the most part but lacking in any wit or style. The lighting makes the show come alive in spots but misses the mark on big dramatic moments especially the deaths.

 

Intermission comments overheard in the lobby were the complete bewilderment of the storyline from newbie’s (the program lacked the usual synopsis) to major fans of the work trying to understand why they weren’t having a good time. But I must add that the show queens seemed to be the cheerleaders of the production.

 

Director Schaeffer and musical director Jon Kalbfleisch did a monumental job of such a mammoth undertaking with only 280 seats. If only the results had the passion onstage that they obviously had in attempting to reconceive the world’s most popular musical.

 

Les Miserables – Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave, Arlington, VA

Tickets: www.signature-theatre.org