Review: ‘Caroline, or Change’ at Creative Cauldron

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Creative Cauldron presents the Tony Award-winning Caroline, or Change, with book and lyrics by Tony Kushner and music by Jeanine Tesori. Director Matt Conner leads a dynamic cast for this powerful sung-through musical, which centers around a steadfast woman named Caroline during the sweeping political and social changes of the 1960’s. Caroline Thibodeaux  is noted as one of the most potent and moving female roles ever written in musical theater. Caroline is an ambitious and demanding role, and in the hands of Iyona Blake, this production is a must-see.

Iyona Blake (Caroline). Photo by Keith Waters, Kx Photography.
Iyona Blake (Caroline Thibodeaux). Photo by Keith Waters, Kx Photography.

ArtSpace is an intimate theatre– built similar to a black-box theatre, Scenic and Costume Designer Margie Jervis uses only a raised platform and some wood-backed chairs as set pieces so that the cast has ample room to perform. Meanwhile, her costumes lend much to the production; beehive hairstyles and dated dresses make the timeline clear, while imaginative accessories bring the more interesting characters to life (a colorful Washing Machine and glowy, soulful Moon are a couple examples).

Lighting Designer Lynn Joslin uses soft blues and fiery reds to highlight emotion, while sound cues like a rumbling city bus place you right on the street. Because of the small space allotted, each member of the creative team must do their bit to create the overall atmosphere– this is a united force, and it shows.

The most defining technical aspect of the show, however, is the music. Musical Director and Pianist Walter “Bobby” McCoy takes a notoriously demanding score (blending  blues, gospel and traditional Jewish klezmer music) and tames it perfectly for the intimate venue. With Jim Hofmann on percussion and Lindsay Williams and Mila Weiss on reeds, the music is masterfully delivered. Combined with the powerhouse vocals of Iyona Blake, the music truly is the soul of this production.

In a lonely underground basement, a maid named Caroline broods while doing laundry for the Gellman family in the poetic number “16 Feet Beneath The Sea.” While the Gellman family is kind, they are unable to pay Caroline healthy wage, and she scrambles to provide for her four children in the number “I Got Four Kids.” Frustrated, resentful, and embittered by her lackluster life, Caroline yields a stoic and impassive figure.

The Gellmans: Harv Lester, Robert John Biedermann, Joe Palka, Carli Smith, Ethan Van Slyke, and Jane Petkofsky. Photo by Keith Waters, Kx Photography.
The Gellmans: Harv Lester, Robert John Biedermann, Joe Palka, Carli Smith, Ethan Van Slyke, and Jane Petkofsky. Photo by Keith Waters, Kx Photography.

The young Gellman son Noah (Ethan Van Slyke) sees Caroline as a sure and steady presence, shown in his song “The Cigarette,” while Caroline’s family and friends find themselves intimidated by her demeanor (“Dotty and Caroline” is a good example of this tension, and Ashley K. Nicholas shines in the role of Dotty). Caroline’s daughter Emmie (an effervescent performance by Tiara Whaley) is caught up in her care-free teenage lifestyle, and her dismissive reaction to JFK’s assassination in the number ” ‘Night Mamma,” is a humorous highlight in the show.

When Noah makes a habit of leaving spare change in his pockets, his fed-up stepmother Rose (Carli Smith) tells Caroline that she is allowed to keep whatever change she finds in the song “Noah Has A Problem.” Undeterred and even emboldened, Noah begins to leave change in his pockets on purpose, amusing himself by wondering how Caroline spoils her children with the extra money with the song “Caroline Takes My Money Home.” However, when Noah is gifted twenty dollars for Chanukah and forgets to empty his pockets, spirits are tested and tempers flare, sparking an explosive situation in the fiery song “Caroline and Noah Fight.”

The story is built on fragile relationships that are tested by the social tensions of the time, and the topic is beautifully explored through characters that range from both painfully deep to downright silly. Harv Lester does a fine job as Stuart Gellman, a tragic figure who seemingly cannot overcome his grief after the death of his first wife.

Ethan Van Slyke (Noah) and Iyona Blake (Caroline). Photo by Keith Waters, Kx Photography.
Ethan Van Slyke (Noah) and Iyona Blake (Caroline). Photo by Keith Waters, Kx Photography.

Awa Sal Secka is unforgettable in her roles of the Washing Machine and the Moon ( she also has an incredible vocal range), and Malcom Lee gets a lot of laughs with his portrayal of an evil Dryer. However, what you will remember from this production is the music, specifically Caroline’s agonizing number “Lot’s Wife,” after which Iyona Blake moved the majority of the audience to awed, silent tears. Her stage presence is one of the most commanding that I have seen, and it should be savored. This production belongs to her.

While Creative Cauldron’s production of Caroline, or Change  is a particularly heavy one emotionally, it holds a lot of humor as well. With a lyrical and evocative score that is full of passion, Caroline, or Change is a poet enthusiast’s dream. The technical elements are professional, performances are skillful and sharp, and Iyona Blake will leave you speechless. Get going!

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, including one 10- minute intermission.

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Caroline, or Change plays through May 29, 2016 at Creative Cauldron at ArtSpace– 410 South Maple Avenue in the Pearson Square Building, in Falls Church, VA. For tickets, call (571) 239-5288, or purchase them online.

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