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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Theatre in Two Galaxies

This week in a galaxy not from where you probably are reading this paper two totally diverse, worthwhile works of theatre are now playing.

 starwars-trilogy

The One Man Star Wars Trilogy is at Center Stage’s Head Theatre until December 21th only. Written and performed by Charles Ross the auditorium full of geeks, divorced fathers with their son and his friends and, of course, the guys in their 20’s -30’s still living in their parents basements brought the right atmosphere for an afternoon of outer space fun.

Ross uses no music, props or costume pieces to re-create all three films in about 65 minutes. Beginning with the Twentieth Century Fox music and ending in the mirrored ball explosion of stars (aptly named disco lights by Ross) he hits all the highlights of the plots of the trilogy spending most of the show with the original Star Wars film. Although he performs the show fondly he takes a few funny tabs at some of the characters such as Darth Vader (he’s not black?), Princess Leia as having her name pronounced differently by various characters and the green scary ghostly things that often appear.

 

His biggest target is Luke Skywalker whom he insists is whiny, and mimes running like a girl. All your favorites are here including Obi wan, Yoda, Jabba the hut and the various horrendous generals and populace do-gooders. His C3PO & R2D2 are a riot and for once the fey golden robot sounds butch compared to Luke.

 

All arms, tumbling, and running around the stage (“4 years of mime school paid off”) Ross makes this one man show seem like a cast of thousands. His voices for the various characters and sound effects are both clever bordering on caricature that is right on target.

 

If you’re one of those types listed above or just a Star Wars/theatre fan you will love this show. Ross has been performing this piece in various forms since 2001 including performances for George Lucas and the premiere of Episode 3. The next step for him as an actor is the one man Lord of the Rings; seriously.

 

Catch the show while it is in our galaxy.

One-Man Star Wars Trilogy – Center Stage, 700 North Calvert Street, Baltimore

Now until December 21st.

 

 next-to-normal_110

 The Best Show of 2008: Next to Normal

By Ben Ryland

 

 It’s almost time to write the Best of 2008 list, my most difficult article every year, but this year it’s easier. A show that played off-broadway last year to acclaim and huge audiences at Second Stage, Next to Normal is the best show I have seen in years. It is now being performed at Arena Stage until January 18th.

 

 After sitting through countless revivals and community productions of well-worn shows what a joy it was to be at a jaw-dropping, mesmerizing production like this.

 

 The plot of Next to Normal is very difficult to explain without turning people off. As much as I would like to tell you the plot points I cannot. Trust me; at its conclusion the show is about love and most of the audience was on their feet cheering. Some may stigmatize it like the Sweeney Todd detractors. Almost totally sung the narrative is about a family some would call dysfunctional. However it is much more than that with several major surprise reality blasts along the way.

 

 It is about a father who accepts unconditional love (played by J. Robert Spenser from the original cast of Jersey Boys), and a daughter (Jennifer Damiano) afraid of love because she fears becoming her mother and committing to stoner boyfriend (Adam Chanler-Berat). The central character is the bi-polar mother, Diane (Broadway’s Alice Ripley) along with her doctor who keeps the show grounded in reality. When a character says “valium is her color” it brings insight into the mother’s disturbed world. Diane is trapped between reality and mental problems that no one including the doctor fully appreciates. Her lucid moments are shattering since she has very little chance of becoming well and Diane feels she is missing her life.

 

 Staged by Michael Greif (RENT) it uses a sparse, multi-level representable set that symbolizes the ups and downs of Diane’s mental state. The staging, lighting, as well as a few songs resemble both RENT and Tommy but this is a unique work and much more realistic. Arena Stage is only the second production and much work has been done since New York.

 

 Alice Ripley gives the performance of a lifetime as Diane. Both heartbreaking and joyful at times she is the heart and soul of Next to Normal. You will never forget her. The fine cast inhabit their roles with so much depth that the surprises nearly tear the audience members apart. Vocally they have no peer as an ensemble, both the veterans and newcomers to the show.

 

 The book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt is astounding with the show still being worked on at this venue. Gut wrenchingly human their characters are so wonderfully realized the audience was dead quiet absorbing every lyric and line of dialog. Where is the recording of this score? Quickly please.

 

 Next to Normal is the type of iconic show that people will remember and judge other works by for years as they remember their first experience seeing it.

 

 Arena Stage is in a temporary theatre in Crystal City while their new building is being erected. It is not easy to find, there is a free evening parking lot but if you are unfamiliar with this area of Arlington I recommend using the Metro.

 

 Next to Normal – Arena Stage in Crystal City, Arlington, VA

Now until January 18th