by Beki Pineda

CAROLINE OR CHANGE – Book and Lyrics by Tony Kushner; Music by Jeanine Tesori; Directed by Kenny Moten. Produced by the Aurora Arts Center (9900 East Colfax, Aurora) through May 5. Tickets available at 303-739-1970 or aurorafoxartscenter.org.

Change can mean more than one thing. It can be an altered state or a few coins in your pocket. In the Kushner-Tesori musical, it’s a little bit of both. The members of both the Gellman and Thibodeaux families are dealing with the change that ran rampant in 1963. For the Gellman’s, Father Stuart (Ben Hilzer) has remarried after the death of a beloved wife; son Noah (Nathaniel Waite-Lutz) is dealing with his Mother’s death and the intrusion of his new Stepmother into his life; and Rose (Maggie Tisdale), the new wife, has left the East Coast to come to Louisiana to marry her best friend’s grieving husband. For Caroline Thibodeaux (Mary Louise Lee), her children are growing, needing more, and becoming independent. Instead of washing clothes by hand, she now has a new washer and drier in the basement of the Gellman house where she works as a maid. Her husband Larry has not come home from Vietnam; she doesn’t approve of the lifestyle of her single friend Dotty (Betty Hart) but dreams of passing a law where Nat King Cole has to come to her house every night and “stroke her soul.”

On a bigger scale, segregation is beginning to fail as evidenced by the midnight destruction of a Confederate soldier statue from the town square. Jack Kennedy has just been assassinated and Medger Evers was killed during the three month time period in 1963 covered in the script. Caroline is not one who takes easily to change and she feels it weighing on her.

But a few coins from a pocket provides the impetus for a return to value for Caroline. To teach her new stepson a lesson about the value of money, Rose tells Caroline she can keep any change she finds in his pockets as she does their laundry – instead of putting it in the bleach cup as she had previously. Despite the Drier (Leonard Barrett, Jr.) warning her not to, the few coins provides a little extra to give her kids.  eeing this, Noah starts intentionally leaving money in his pockets for her. The difficulty comes when a gifted $20 bill gets left by mistake, causing a rift between Noah and Caroline who have been boon companions up to this point.

The piece is composed similar to an opera in that there is very little spoken dialogue; what needs to be said is said through the music, but with very little repetition or the traditional AABA musical format. You don’t get a second chance to pick up on the lyrics. Some of the songs are only a few lines long, while others take longer to tell their part of the story. Which makes being able to hear the lyrics doubly important in order to follow the feelings being expressed. My one criticism of the production was that the balance between the on-stage orchestra, the Radio singers (three Motown glitter girls) and the solo singers got a little heavy-handed in parts making it difficult to clearly hear the story being told. It was best when the mood was a little more quiet and thoughtful as in Caroline’s realization of how she had let loose change change her in “Lot’s Wife.”

The cast under the leadership of Director Kenny Moten and the Music Director Trent Hines gave life to this meaningful story. Mary Louise Lee leads this cast through its paces with her stunning portrayal of the prickly but compassionate Caroline. She presents us with a total portrait of a woman with dreams, hopes for her children, and memories of a better time.  She is ably supported by both Sophia Dotson and Nathaniel Waite-Lutz who alternate in the role of Noah; and the members of the Gellman family – Ben Hilzer as the father, Maggie Tisdale as the new stepmom, Lee Ann Scherlong as Grandma, and Joel Silverman as Grandpa. Wes Munsil, on loan from Performance Now, gives a biting portrayal as Rose’s father who doesn’t believe in the pacifist tactics of Martin Luther King. Which causes an argument between Caroline’s daughter, played with great spirit and soaring vocals by Krisangela Washington. Best friend Dotty is Betty Hart who also doubles as one of the Radio Singers along with Lisa Young and Krisangela. Rajdulari and Leonard Barrett, Jr. play the Washer and Drier with lovable jazz riffs. Besides Krisangela, Caroline’s sons are Kobe Johnson and Owen Zitek in sweet performances. All in all, a powerful cast.

A WOW factor of 8.5!!