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* Caroline, or Change -- SpeakEasy Stage outdid itself with this one. It played to all the strengths the company showed this season: stronger musical interpretation, serious set design, fresh and challenging material. Written by Tony (Angels in America) Kushner, the show weaves some of his favorite themes (childhood, race, American politics, Jewish identity, fantasy) into a winning but melancholy object lesson on families in transition. 8 year old Noah is an observant, sensitive kid whose mom died and who's trying to deal with his new stepmom by idolizing the family maid, Caroline -- herself stuck in a weird place, namely the family's humid New Orleans basement with the washer and dryer and the radio (each of which is personified onstage by a deliciously over-the-top performer or, for the radio, a trio of coiffed pink backup singers). Gruff and stoic Caroline, at 39 a single mom of four, is prickled by her deferred dreams, vague though they might be, at every turn -- all her songs have a tone of bitterness and lament. But she's everything to Noah, who has a habit of leaving pocket change in his pants. When stepmom Rose tries to teach Noah the value of money by telling Caroline to keep any change she finds in the laundry, uncomfortable lessons are learned all around. This simplistic setup sounds like a fable, but there is no simple happy ending -- each character (and there are plenty, everyone gets a good line or soliloquy or solo passage, from Grandpa to the Moon to Caroline's sassy daughter Emmie) changes a bit, but just a bit, and maybe not for the better, just like in life. The score is that sort of modern mishmash of pop music, gospel, arrhythmic a cappella and lush Sondheimian piano that signifies "thoughtful Broadway" these days. There were a few "numbers" I could've done without, and a few heavyhanded moments, but the overall effect was transporting -- particularly the image of The Moon, a statuesque silver goddess with a Lucite staff, backlit against a huge lunar cutout like an Alphonse Mucha poster, as her shimmery voice blended with the other characters. I didn't think a Kushner play would work as a musical, but I was wrong -- this is sort of like A Midsummer Night's Dream meets Anna Karenina and that old NBC show I'll Fly Away, with a dash of Hairspray and Porgy and Bess, just right, an American pastiche. (A+)

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