Tony Kushner's 2004 musical, CAROLINE, OR CHANGE, is a domestic drama that speaks to the social, economic and racial strife in the deep South during the winter of 1963. It's also an innovative and curious—if not always successful—hybrid of dramatic and musical forms.
His uneven text mixes a profound emotional alienation that separates all of the central characters with the unambiguously fantastic. Meanwhile, Jeanine Tesori's through-sung score is operatic in structure and scope, even as it draws upon influences including Klezmer and classical music, Motown and the blues.
The remoteness that Noah (Arel Marsh), an 8-year-old child, and his father, Stuart (Brian Fisher), both experience after the death of Noah's mom, is echoed in the distance the title character keeps from both. Noah looks up to the strong and indestructible Caroline (Lora Deneen Tatum), a single African-American mother of three who works in Noah's house as a maid. Caroline, however, has too many problems to let him ever get too close. Those difficulties are voiced by a strange Greek chorus: a trio of anthropomorphic household appliances—the radio, washing machine and dryer—and an embodiment of the moon (coloratura Tina Morris-Anderson).
In the title role, Tatum anchors this Raleigh Little Theatre production under Karen Dacons-Brock's direction with a solid demeanor and a singing voice built for the blues. As a 9-year-old with perfect pitch and a lovely voice, Marsh has a promising future ahead of him. Unfortunately, it's still a bit early for him to be tackling such emotionally complex material. A list of toys he realizes he can buy with a new allowance, the feelings he states for a new stepmother (Monique Argent Gannon) and the hatred he feels at one crucial moment for Caroline—all sound basically the same.
Kushner clearly seems uncomfortable with the abrupt, abbreviated end, in which rescue or redemption are possible only for some, but not all. It's a strange ending for a moving but not always successful theatrical experiment.
Composer Jeanine Tesori's name was misspelled in the original version of this review.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Theatrical uprisings."