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Sizzling ‘Caroline, or Change’ even more profound 10 years later

Micheal Lovette and Rashada Dawan in Firebrand Theatre and TimeLine Theatre Company's production of "Caroline, or Change," directed by Lili-Anne Brown. | Marisa KM Photo

A background plot in the masterful Tony Kushner-Jeanine Tesori musical “Caroline, or Change” — receiving an intimate, stirring production by Firebrand Theatre in partnership with TimeLine Theatre — involves the secret removal of a Confederate statue. In prior productions, such as the sterling Court Theatre mounting with E. Faye Butler as Caroline in 2008, this seemed mostly just one more historical reference in a story, set in 1963 Louisiana, filled with them. But given contemporary political events, this narrative component jumps out now.

‘CAROLINE, OR CHANGE’
★★★★
When: Through October 28
Where: Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee
Tickets: $45
Info: firebrandtheatre.org
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission

It’s a great reminder that change, a subject this musical contemplates frequently and on multiple levels, doesn’t move in a linear direction. It’s not reversible, exactly — change has consequences. But, as we’ve learned, the forces that resist change (even after it occurs) remain powerful and resilient, and when given an opportunity to express themselves, they can do so with the shocking force of pent-up resentment.

Lasting change — well, that’s hard, and it involves not just laws, but also, as the cliche suggests, changing hearts and minds.

Personal change, and resistance to it, is really what “Caroline, or Change” is all about, and, in Rashada Dawan, this production has a Caroline who impeccably captures this stubborn defiance of self-improvement. Kushner originally wrote the libretto for this sung-through musical as an opera, which gives you a sense of the depth of emotions expressed here, but which Dawan carefully and sensitively percolates to their climax and then unleashes.

Caroline works as a maid for a Jewish family in Lake Charles, Louisiana (where Kushner himself grew up). At 39, divorced from an abusive husband and with four kids, she spends her days in the basement of the house, doing laundry, listening to the radio, and contemplating her sense of disappointment with her life. With an unhappy character at its core, it helps that Kushner and Tesori inject wit by fancifully bringing Caroline’s companions to life; the opening number involves a trio of singers (Roberta Burke, De’Jah Jerval, and Emma Sipora Tyler) as the radio, as well as embodiments of the washer (Tyler Symone, who also plays the Moon) and dryer (Micheal Lovette, who also plays a bus).

Every day, after school, eight-year-old Noah – whose mother has died of cancer — comes down to light Caroline’s cigarette and absorb her presence, which in its uniform moroseness somehow feels comforting and reliable.

Kushner’s characters emerge full-blown and then deepen, and, under Lili-Anne Brown’s direction, the performers nimbly navigate these dimensions. Alejandro Medina emanates a child’s naivete and enthusiasm as Noah fantasizes about becoming a member of Caroline’s family. As his father Stuart, Jonathan Schwart combines the character’s emotional reserve with his sense of loss to express pure numbness as he escapes into his clarinet. Blair Robertson lets us into Rose’s good intentions and intense frustrations, as she deals with her own vast change – having recently moved from New York to the South to a mourning new husband and step-son, as well as a surly, underpaid housekeeper.

Rashada Dawan (left) and Bre Jacobs with (back, l to r) Emma Sipora Tyler, De'Jah Jervai and Roberta Burke in Firebrand Theatre and TimeLine Theatre Company's production of "Caroline, or Change." Marisa KM Photo

Rashada Dawan (left) and Bre Jacobs with (back, l to r) Emma Sipora Tyler, De’Jah Jervai and Roberta Burke in Firebrand Theatre and TimeLine Theatre Company’s production of “Caroline, or Change.” Marisa KM Photo

As Caroline’s far more flexible friend Dotty, also a maid but attending college too, Nicole Michelle Haskins provides the necessary strength of personality to challenge Caroline. And as Caroline’s daughter Emmie, Bre Jacobs captures youthful certainty and willfulness.

Ultimately, though, “Caroline, or Change” which has lost not a single ounce of its power since it was first produced in 2003, is about Caroline, and Dawan carries this show with a powerful voice and acting so genuine you really want to tell her to cheer up. Performing in the intimate mainstage of the Den Theatre, Dawan finds subtlety in Caroline’s perpetual scowls, a tired but loving affection for Noah (particularly in the scenes where she imagines conversations with him when she’s home at night), and a sense of inner guidance from her faith.

“Caroline, or Change” remains an unusual, unique musical, although you can sense its influence on complex musical dramas such as “Next to Normal,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” and Tesori’s “Fun Home,” another deeply personal and dramatic work with a score by Tesori. Even those shows — so character-driven, so unafraid of problematic topics — don’t have the scope of a show like “Caroline,” which never achieved the commercial success in the U.S. that those later shows did. Maybe that’s because it’s more of a period piece and that can be distancing. Or maybe because “Caroline, or Change” deals with topics – race, religion, the corruption of money on our psyches — even more universally challenging than mental illness and suicide.

Brave it. If anything, this show feels more current now than it did a decade ago, it is filled with wit and likable, if not admirable, characters, and the dramatic expression of these oh-so-real characters could not be more compelling.

Steven Oxman is a local freelance writer.