"Caroline, or Change" -- a music drama by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori set in the South in 1963 -- both fulfills and defies expectations. Wednesday's preview night packed Cyrano's playhouse and those lucky enough to get a seat were awed by a remarkable theatrical experience.
In the title role, Kalia Lynne anchors the show with clarion singing and acting. She pulls you into the torments of the underpaid, overworked and overheated maid, slamming out her frustrations with her iron on laundry as she smothers next to a dryer in the only basement in swampy Lake Charles.
"Nothing happens under ground in Louisiana," she sings, because there is no underground. "There's just under water." The first of Kushner's many verbal twists refers to her predicament as a single mom struggling to raise three children on $30 a week.
Caroline doesn't smile. Her heart broken by the weight of life, she dismisses aspiration in others, bristles at people who wish her well, snaps at kids.
As with almost all of Kushner's characters, she's a hard person to like; but in a stirring portrayal, Lynne makes it possible to empathize with her.
The leading man is third grader Noah, the son of Caroline's employers, who idolizes her. At the preview the part was sung by Jimmie Lanier, who will rotate in the hefty role with Nathan Swan. A second major child's part is that of Caroline's spirited daughter Emmie, sung by Kristin Leifi. Those two and the singers playing Emmie's younger brothers -- Saula Ofiu and Madison Coulson -- give outstandingly convincing performances, emotionally accurate, with good projection and clear diction. Their tight ensemble Act One finale had the crowd on the edge of their seats.
There are some real divas in the show, singers associated with Anchorage Opera, notably Glaceia Henderson as Dotty, Caroline's friend and one of those optimists whose aspirations rub her the wrong way. Henderson takes a secondary role and, with her strengths as both singer and actress, owns the stage when she steps onto it.
Lauren Green and Lisa Willis bring their big voices to the anthropomorphic roles of the Washing Machine and the moon, respectively, as does Will Johnson, the Dryer and a bus driver.
The redoubtable John Fraser has a brief but scene-stealing part (with Leifi) as a boisterous old Bolshevik, relegated to selling hats in a store, yearning for the return of the Wobblies and insistent that nonviolent protests will never work.
Blaze Bell, Clarissa Gay and Rachel Hubbard present a sort of Greek chorus commentary as the Radio, depicted as a '60s soul girl trio. They look like the Ronettes, but don't sing with the same smooth blend or full-bodied solos. Or perhaps Tesori isn't up to arranging as well as Phil Spector did.
All of the members of the cast of 18 are consummate actors, but in a show that requires everyone to sing, clearly less comfortable with sining: Dean Williams and Kim LeClair as Noah's father and step-mother, Dick Reichmann and Joyce Laine as his grandparents. Of these the best singer, and the most engaging character in the biggest role, is LeClair. She played the painful part of Caroline's antagonist with nuanced expressions and asides that peeled back the layers of her own frustrations as a homesick New Yorker, uncertain how she can relate to the family in which she is the newcomer.
The 10 piece orchestra, squeezed into a tiny corner of Cyrano's tiny space, is ably led from the keyboard by James Mablin. The music, mostly R&B in nature with references to traditional Jewish songs, children's songs and even Christmas songs, is polished and sometimes gripping, particularly in ensembles. But it's not memorable.
Combined with the script, however, the score becomes an integral part of a modern American masterpiece. Kushner may be our best living playwright, ingeniously delving into topics like World War II or AIDS in a style that borders on fable without falling into fantasy.
In this play he weaves the civil rights movement, Vietnam and President Kennedy's assassination into the fabric of the story. But it's the people -- all flawed, trapped in sadness, struggling to see where they fit in the big picture, vulnerable to lashing out, yet deserving of love. Where his agendas are manifested (and they always are), the preaching is left to believable characters.
The "Change" of the title reflects social and personal evolution constantly discussed by the characters. But it also refers to money, specifically the power of money to corrupt even good people using it even for the best of reasons. Beyond that, it seems to mean transformation in the sense of a metaphysical mystery. All life is a test, Caroline tells Noah. "Cancer was your mother's test. Her death is yours."
Despite the three hour length (short by Kushnerian standards) everything transpires with an astonishing economy and compression. It does not seem long. The viewer seldom has the chance to catch his breath as tensions build and brilliant line falls upon line until, like a giant sand mandala, we're confronted by an artificial world on the stage that is as complex and tangible as the real world outside the theater.
This is the best direction by Teresa Pond, with choreography by Erick Hayden, that I've seen. Action is coordinated in Cyrano's problematic stage so that it feels natural. There are no gaps or gratuitous or wasted moves. In the quasi-absurdist format, which sometimes puts several characters in different locations all on stage at the same time, the whole thing seems perfectly normal. Or at least comprehensible.
The whole that results is a terrific production of a difficult yet rewarding theater work.
Find Mike Dunham online at adn.com/contact/mdunham or call 257-4332.