There's no ignoring the theatrical zeitgeist in Music City, as two local premieres explore the the same critical period in American history: the late '50s and early '60s, the heart of the civil rights era. Both new productions — one an unconventional musical, the other a dark comedy — are splendidly mounted and feature firm direction and inspired performances.
Street Theatre Company is staging Caroline, or Change, an ambitious operatic piece by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori whose theme is reflected in the title's play on words. Set in 1963 in Louisiana, the story revolves around the unlikely relationship between a young boy, Noah, and the family maid, Caroline, who finds coins (the titular change) in Noah's pockets while doing laundry, then is later instructed by the boy's stepmother to keep the money to teach him a lesson about responsibility.
That situation serves as the fulcrum for an examination of early-'60s family life for privileged whites vs. struggling blacks, interracial dynamics and also the promise of societal inroads that yet awaited African-Americans. Kushner's libretto engages the distinction between old ways and new, and does so via vivid and deep characters — in particular, Caroline, played here by the amazing Brooke Davis. Davis, like several other players in the show, makes her STC debut a fabulous one. She brings powerful, conflicted emotions to her portrayal, not to mention stirring vocal chops worthy of a show like Porgy and Bess (which she has sung previously).
Notable others include the riveting Janette Bruce (as stepmother Rose) and the gifted Piper Jones, a recent grad from Belmont University's music program making her Nashville theatrical debut.
In fact, there are many strong performances in the cast of 17 — wonderful voices all — but special praise goes to Dalton Tilghman (as the lad Noah), who exudes charm, sensitivity and precocious poise.
Peter Vann makes his STC directorial debut, and he skillfully weaves together the show's many imaginative moving parts — including a singing washing machine and dryer (!), dance numbers choreographed by Stephanie Walker and the decidedly eclectic (but never inaccessible) score, which blends blues, R&B, Motown-ish pop and Yiddish folk. Rollie Mains masterfully conducts the musical ensemble.
In mounting such a complex work with such confidence — and by boldly tapping into our city's wealth of emerging talent — STC has set the bar ever higher for grassroots Nashville theater.
Down at TPAC, Tennessee Rep takes on Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park, another involving piece of stagecraft, set in 1959 and tied to Lorraine Hansberry's classic A Raisin in the Sun, about a black family's attempt to purchase a house in an all-white Chicago neighborhood.
Norris' Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play, which enjoyed a long Broadway run before closing recently, provides speculation on the "other side" of Hansberry's play — the white folks' side. Later, the action fast-forwards to 2009, when an occasion of reverse-gentrification happens involving the very same home.
It's a strong setup, and Act 1 is a brilliantly wrought piece of theater, spiked by its subtle hint at a tragic incident that cuts across the racial divide. Here, Norris' crisp dialogue is handled confidently by director René Copeland's well-cast ensemble — in particular Derek Whittaker, whose brooding portrayal of homeowner Russ sets the tone for the production's daringly subversive approach.
Act 2 proves more difficult, as a series of encounters conjures tasteless jokes and exploits racial insensitivity. The outrage reportedly experienced by some New York theatergoers no doubt stems from these passages, contrived for effect, but not all that dramatically successful in the final analysis, despite drawing a gasp or two. In truth, the smartness in Norris' writing sometimes descends into a smart-alecky tone, which makes for both nervous laughter and some labored drama.
Copeland's steady direction and the committed performances of Nate Eppler, Shannon Hoppe, Tony Morton, Shelean Newman, Eric D. Pasto-Crosby and Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva push us through to the conclusion, which ultimately returns to the poignance of Act 1's more human story, delivering a satisfying wrap-up.
Sound designer Paul Carrol Binkley leads us out appropriately with the haunting strains of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come." Designer Gary Hoff's big house set is yet another of his well-wrought major creations.
In the end, Clybourne Park comes across as a very interesting place to visit — but you might not want to live there.
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