Review: “Caroline, or Change” grooves at the Guthrie

“Caroline, or Change,” at the Guthrie Theater now through June 21, is not the perfect musical. But it may be the perfect night at the theater.

This drama, which debuted on Broadway in 2004, depicts one Louisiana household–Jewish with a black maid–struggling to do right by each other in 1963 as a wave of impending social change rises before them in the wake of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the full flower of the Civil Rights movement. As imagined by playwright Tony Kushner, it’s a suspenseful, eye-of-the-hurricane moment.

As the story tumbles along, however, Kushner’s idiosyncrasies begin to distract. His metaphorical leaps are at once too obvious and a step too short (coin change equals change, get it?). He doesn’t write dialogue so much as he slings it, in the service of provocation, which occasionally makes the family dynamics ring false, not to mention unlikable. Kushner is also seemingly so concerned with balancing perspectives that most everyone, at one time or another, comes off as unbalanced. And for some reason–likely to cover such a vast social, racial, cultural, familial, and historical landscape in a single evening–Kushner has ignored this prime precept of effective writing: show don’t tell; brief but not infrequent passages of explication come off first as cute then insufferable.

As a result, the musical is less emotionally moving than intellectually stimulating. “I hadn’t thought of that,” you find yourself thinking, stroking your chin. “Yes, it might have happened like that, indeed.”

That said, you’re unlikely to experience a more thoughtful evening of musical theater this season. Or to find a collection of voices with the power, presence, and skill to sink their vocal chords so thoroughly and enjoyably into this lovely and groove-filled music. The crowdpleasing T. Mychael Rambo, Jamecia Bennett, Regina Marie Williams, Nikki Renee Daniels, and especially Greta Oglesby as Caroline, wring every soulful moment out of this score, which hits all the best notes of gospel, R&B, blues, and doo-wop. Oglesby, the Penumbra Theater veteran, didn’t need any more gold in her crown but she’s created some here with an unfaltering alchemy of musical and theatrical power.

After the show, the music was the topic on most people’s tongues, and that’s probably about right: it’ll take a little longer for the sugar to wear off and Kushner’s rendering of our country’s complicated, difficult-to-swallow past to be absorbed.

 

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