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Caroline, or Change

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Himes assembled a top-notch cast and Burwinkel gave the actors a breathtaking and cleverly designed set to help tell the story.

Book and Lyrics by Tony Kushner
Music by Jeanine Tesori
St. Louis Black Repertory/HotCity Theatre
Directed by Ron Himes
Through January 29, 2006

The Black Rep kicks off its 29th season with a daring production of Tony Kushner’s look at life in the Big Easy, Caroline, or Change. The story, set in 1963, centers around Caroline, the maid of a well-to-do Jewish family, as she has to deal with poverty, race relations, religious observances, and the death of John F. Kennedy. In coping with severe social changes, Caroline ultimately has to decide whether she will remain as is or change with the times.

Kushner is known for his unique perspective. Having won a Pulitzer Prize for his landmark epic, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Kushner has taken another chance by speaking out on the radical times of the 1960s and how the events affected every last American in one way or another.

While this style of musical—where approximately 95 percent of the dialogue is sung or spoken with a singsong-y voice (think Rent)—may not be easy for everyone to follow, the story and characters are interesting enough to keep most involved. Also noteworthy is the way Kushner gave inanimate objects—the washing machine, the moon, the bus—not only key roles in his story but arguably some of the best songs.

Starring in the role of Caroline was the multitalented Anita Jackson, able to communicate with her vocal brilliance as well as her body language. The presence Jackson exhibited onstage was palpable. Fortunately, Jackson was given an amazing amount of support from a dazzling supporting cast. Child actor P.J. Palmer who turned in a terrific performance as Noah. Though his voice faltered on a couple of the early songs, as the show went on, Palmer proved why he deserved to be in this demanding role: The kid can act. Palmer gave his role the naiveté it needed, as well as the professionalism displayed by the rest of the cast.

Another child actor who impressed was Georgia native Naima J. Carter in the role of Emmie Thibodeaux. I don’t know what they have in the water down South, but this little girl with the big voice gave her other actors a run for the money with a knock-out vocal performance. Other sensational performances were turned in by Rochelle “Coco Soul” Walker as The Washing Machine, Karen Hylton as The Moon, and one of my all-time favorites, Denise M. Thimes, as Dotty Moffett. Terrific in The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’ production of Crowns, Thimes once again commanded the stage with a marvelous vocal presentation.

While the cast was outstanding, I would be remiss in not mentioning the Director of the show, Ron Himes, as well as the Scenic Designer, Jim Burwinkel, who each did a terrific job. Himes assembled a top-notch cast and Burwinkel gave the actors a breathtaking and cleverly designed set to help tell the story. Kudos to both men for paying attention to the small details.

The St. Louis Black Repertory Theatre—along with HotCity Theatre—never seems to be afraid to take chances, instead embracing the risks inherent in breaking from the status quo. As a theatergoer, you should not risk missing this wonderful production.

Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change, presented by The Black Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and HotCity Theatre, will continue through January 29, 2006, at the Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square in Grand Center. Performances are Thursdays at 7 p.m., Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets range from $17 to $40, and can be purchased at any Metrotix outlet (www.metrotix.com; 314-534-1111). For more information on The Black Rep and HotCity, visit their Web sites at www.stlouisblackrep.com and www.hotcitytheatre.org.

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