Arts & Entertainment

Review: Creative Cauldron’s ‘Caroline’ is Broadway-Quality

Creative Cauldron board chair Gina Caceci chats following a performance last Saturday night with middle schooler Ethan Van Slyke who has a major role in “Caroline, or Change.” (Photo: News-Press)
Creative Cauldron board chair Gina Caceci chats following a performance last Saturday night with middle schooler Ethan Van Slyke who has a major role in “Caroline, or Change.” (Photo: News-Press)

You can go through all the trouble to make it up to New York to see a Broadway play, or you can just mosey on over to Falls Church’s Creative Cauldon this month to enjoy a Broadway-quality production of Tony Kushner’s Tony-nominated Broadway hit musical, “Caroline, or Change.”

Kushner’s particular genius – best reflected in his legendary “Angels in America” and his screenplay for the Academy Award-winning film, “Lincoln” – is augmented in this his first and only musical by the adroit direction and staging in the small Cauldron digs on S. Maple Street masterfully achieved by the Cauldron’s resident artistic genius Matt Conner, by music director and pianist Bobby McCoy, and by a knock-out cast led by Iyona Blake in the captivating lead role as Caroline Thibodeaux.

As Laura Hull’s Cauldron racks up more and more honors and award nominations, this musical could be called the best yet, but there is no need to denigrate previous successes by such comparisons. But suffice it to say, you’ll be hard pressed to experience something better, no matter where you go to see it. The production is sponsored by Falls Church’s Diener and Associates, CPAs.

The musical is autobiographical for Kushner, who grew up in a Jewish family in Lake Charles, Louisiana in the time frame of this production, which is around the wider events centered on the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. Kushner wrote the play and the libretto and Jeanine Tesori provided the music.

Caroline, so deftly performed by Blake, is a maid in a Jewish household and is befriended in her basement digs by the young boy, Noah Gellman, functioning roughly as Kushner’s autobiographical character, remarkably well performed by eighth grader Ethan Van Slyke, already with a long list of credits.

In her program notes, Cauldron Founder and Producing Director Hull calls the musical “one of the most unique, powerful and moving musicals to be written in decades.” Kushner wrote about an era when “so much was changing, and yet so much was not. Race relations at their most tenuous in a nation finally coming to terms with an entrenched culture of segregation in the Deep South, it took courageous freedom marches and civil disobedience to shake the foundation of this system, but it took personal transformation to finally crack it open.”

The play hit Broadway in 2003, still years before the Obama presidency began on the plus side, and revelations about the extent of persisting racism and brutality began, on the negative side, with what police and hand-held camera phones began to show. So, as with the struggle for racial equality, this musical reveals a work in progress.

Kushner, in his introduction to the paperback script of the musical, wrote in 2004, “This play comes from sorrow, from anger and grief, and also from hope learned from history, from recent history which has shown us both the terrors and also the pleasures of change, which has shown us that change, progress, is difficult, uneven, uncertain, but also absolutely possible.”

This is a recurring theme with Kushner, as in both “Angels in America” and “Lincoln,” for example. For persons of good will, while the struggle for change is found in that good will, it does not come easily, but only with hard work, patience and over time. Yet, still, it comes.

On the idea of doing a musical, Kushner wrote, “Words betray the arduousness of the struggle to express, to interpret, to understand. Music offers up emotion and idea with an organicity and shapeliness and spontaneity that must be what we mean when we say that something possess grace.”

In her play-closing remarks, the character Emmie, Caroline’s daughter played by Tiara Whaley, attests, “I’m the daughter of a maid. She stands alone where the harsh winds blow, salting the earth so nothing grow too close, but still her strong blood flow underground through hidden veins, down from storm clouds when it rains, down the plains, down the high plateau, down to the Gulf of Mexico, down to Larry and Emmie and Jackie and Joe, the children of Caroline Thibodeaux.”

The largest cast yet of any major production at Creative Cauldron was uniformly excellent and energetic, animated by the power of the work.