Soft Power electrifies at the Curran

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The cast of Jeanine Tesori and David Henry Hwang’s Soft Power includes (from left) Kristen Faith Oei, Raymond J. Lee (obscured), Austin Ku, Daniel May, Geena Quintos, Jon Hoche, Paul HeeSang Miller, Jaygee Macapugay, Billy Bustamante (obscured), Maria-Christina Oliveras and Kendyl Ito. Below: (from left) Maria-Christina Oliveras (obscured), Geena Quintos, Billy Bustamante, Conrad Ricamora, Jaygee Macapugay, Jon Hoche and Daniel May in the production directed by Leigh Silverman and choreographed by Sam Pinkleton on stage at the Curran Theatre. Photos by Craig Schwartz

Remarkable. Inspiring. Hilarious. Moving. There aren’t enough descriptive words to fully express just how wonderful and fascinating and exhilarating it is to experience Soft Power the new musical by David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori now at the Curran Theatre.

Forget Go-Go’s pop musicals (sorry Head Over Heels). Hit the road, lame movie-to-musical adaptations (looking at you, Walk on the Moon). This is what it’s like to be in the presence of musical theater with bracing originality, thrilling artistry, abundant intelligence (and humor) and expert execution. Watching Soft Power feels important – it’s tremendously entertaining and thought-provoking, but it also feels somehow bigger than the average show. This stage contains a larger conversation about the musical theater form itself, our evolution as truly compassionate humans and about the state of our nation. This is easily the most important musical since Hamilton.

Describing Soft Power is challenging primarily because it has so much going on, which is one of its many charms. There are three main ingredients here: The King and I, Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign and China’s quest for “soft power,” which is the notion of ideas, inventions and culture that change the way people think.

This is also described as “a play with a musical,” and that’s appropriate because the musical that eventually transpires is dependent on the short play that precedes it. Once that musical arrives, audience members find themselves in high-concept territory because you’re not just watching a musical. You’re watching, essentially, a reversal of The King and I from the 22nd century. No more is the white lady in the foreign country taming the barbarians and teaching the king how to govern his own people. In this case, the cast is primarily Asian playing blonde, gun-toting Americans who are tamed by the kind-hearted Chinese guy, who also happens to fall in love with Mrs. Clinton.

Questions of appropriation and representation – those catch phrases that we hear so much about these days – are not merely asked here, they are considered and corrected and satirized. This is not a show that debates issues. It embodies them. It makes fun of them, pummels them, satirizes them, eviscerates them.

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This immersive 2 1/2-hour experience is filled with laughs and parody and homage, both in Tesori’s lush, gorgeous score, with its echoes of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Sondheim and so much more, as well as in Sam Pinkleton’s choreography with its pop-meets-de-Mille exuberance. Hwang’s book is sharp and pointed, but what’s so extraordinary about Soft Power is the way the show also works as musical storytelling. Just as one of the characters complains about the political incorrectness of The King and I she heaps praise upon that show’s beautiful score and emotional storytelling, or, as she describes it, the show’s “perfect delivery system.” You might not like aspects of King (like its caucasian perspective on Asian culture), but once the music starts, your heart surrenders. Something like that happens here. Tesori’s score, which is so wonderfully different from the superb work she created in shows like Caroline, or Change and Fun Home, bursts with life and humor and beauty. Hwang’s lyrics (with additional lyrics by Tesori) are direct and insightful.

Director Leigh Silverman manages the impossible here. She creates an emotional framework that allows Hwang and Tesori to careen all over the place while still creating characters and stories we care about. Just when it seems the musical will fully flip into full-on political buffoonery, we’re drawn back into human-scale emotion. And here’s another astonishing thing: everything here feels relevant, from the deconstruction of good ol’ American musical theater to the bashing of the television personality with all the bankruptcies who beat Hillary (he is referred to as the president or as “dear leader” but is never referred to by name). Silverman, Hwang and Tesori have taken our world – what feels like this exact moment – and turned it into art on a grand scale. How did they do that? When they get to the inspirational number at the end, it actually IS inspirational because it feels as if the actors are reaching down to your seat and offering you that little spark, that little push, that little reminder to keep going.

When Act 1 ends, and you’re thinking, “What in the world did I just see?” and then you consider this: “There’s no way Act 2 can continue on this tightrope. As with so many musicals, Act 2 will deflate the balloon.” But then Act 2 happens and it’s even better, and all those courageous leaps come together with emotional and intellectual pay-off.

Huge credit must go to the dynamic cast headed by Conrad Ricamora as our hero from China, Alyse Alan Louis as Hillary Clinton and former Bay Area stalwart Francis Jue as a playwright named David Henry Hwang. They are supported by an outstanding ensemble that can handle every tonal shift thrown at them and then some.

Set designer David Zinn, lighting designer Mark Barton and costume designer Anita Yavich bring clarity and humor to the stage as well and keenly differentiate between our real 21st world and the future musical world of the 22nd century. The flashy stage is often like the circus meets grand opera but with many, many, many more guns.

Soft Power (which can actually be defined by its title) makes it very clear that democracy may break your heart, but this brilliant show also has the very real power to restore your faith in art as reflection, renewal and, perhaps most importantly, revolution.

Jeanine Tesori and David Henry Hwang’s Soft Power continues through July 8 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $29-$175. Visit for information.

Gorgeous, moving Fun Home at the Curran

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Alessandra Baldacchino (left) is Small Alison, Pierson Salvador (center) is Christian and Lennon Nate Hammond is John in the Broadway touring company of Fun Home at the newly renovated Curran Theatre. Below: The three actors who play writer/artist Alison Bechdel at various times in her life in Fun Home are (from left) Kate Shindle, Abby Corrigan and Baldacchino. Photos by Joan Marcus

At only about 100 minutes, the musical Fun Home, manages to encapsulate a profoundly moving life experience: coming to terms with your parents as human beings and not just the people who gave you life then messed up that life one way or another.

That’s a universal experience, although the version in Fun Home is very specific to writer/artist Alison Bechdel, who chronicled her childhood and coming out in the extraordinary 2006 graphic memoir of the same name. Chances are good that not all of us grew up in a small Pennsylvania town with a dad who was a high school English teacher, a furniture and house restoration buff, a mortician and a closeted gay man. But that doesn’t make Bechdel’s coming to terms with her dad (and, subsequently herself) any less relatable, funny or deeply moving.

What an extraordinary show to officially re-open the spectacularly renovated Curran Theatre, now in its 95th year and the ongoing project of Carole Shorenstein Hays and her family. With this one show, the Curran establishes itself as a home for the kind of forward-thinking, emotionally and artistically complex theater we need most now and will likely continue to need at an even greater level in the near future.

Fun Home does not seem like the kind of musical that would become a big hit, but that’s what happened in the wake of its premiere at New York’s famed Public Theater in 2013. The show, adapted by book writer and lyricist Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori and directed by Sam Gold, found a way to make the musical re-telling of Bechdel’s story feel fresh and original while never losing sight of the fact that Bechdel is telling her story from a cartoonist’s point of view. In many ways, the show is about a woman creating her memoir. To do that successfully requires the author to dig deep and try and face the truth. For Bechdel, that means containing her dad, mom and two brothers within cartoon panels with balloon dialogue and captions. For the musical’s creators, that means finding the emotional sounds of difficult personalities and incidents and making them sing and (occasionally) dance.

On Broadway, where it won five Tony Awards (including statues for Kron, Tesori and Gold), Fun Home was performed in the round. Now on its national tour, the production has been reconfigured for proscenium theaters and what it might lose from in-the-round intimacy, it gains in David Zinn’s stunning design, which has a profound moment of deepening the clarity of the storytelling and pulling us deeper into Alison’s experience as she draws closer to the last time she ever spent with her dad.

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Until that time, the staging is simple. The small orchestra is on a platform at the rear of the stage, and actors move tables and other pieces of furniture around to suggest the family home, the funeral home (known in the family as the “fun home”), a car, Alison’s college dorm room and more. Simplicity turns to escapist flare for two feel-good numbers. The first involves the three young Bechdel children creating their own commercial for the family business (“Come to the Fun Home”) with echoes of the Jackson 5 (especially in the choreography by Danny Mefford) and another with Alison reacting to the rough-edged relationship with her mercurial father by fantasizing a “Partridge Family”-style number to life (“Raincoat of Love”).

Tesori’s music for these numbers is infections and joyful and stands in contrast to much of the other music in the show, which feels weighted by dark emotion and uncertainty. It’s not surprising that some moments here evoke Tesori’s brilliant Caroline, or Change in the way they bear the emotional heft of opera but still live in the world of musical theater. Several stand-out numbers include “Ring of Keys,” a startlingly resonant moment in young Alison’s life when she identifies with a butch delivery woman; “Changing My Major,” college-age Alison’s incredibly endearing rush of first love excitement; and “Telephone Wire,” a duet for older Alison and her dad, which says as much in its silences as it does in its music and lyrics. The show ending trio between all three actors who play Alison at various ages, “Flying Away,” is as beautiful and as moving as any musical finale ever. Sometimes musical theater composers forget that when people join voices, it means something, and if there’s a resonant reason for them to be harmonizing the power can be overwhelming. That’s the zone in which Fun Home works.

The cast for this Fun Home tour is spectacular. The three actors who play Alison are the show’s heart. Alessandra Baldacchino as young Alison conveys childish enthusiasm confronting the reality of an erratic father, and her performance of “Ring of Keys” is nothing short of thrilling. Kate Shindle as older Alison hovers around the action for much of the play but finally comes into her own in the show’s final numbers. It is irresistible Abby Corrigan as college-age Alison who super-charges the evening. Coming out is such a fraught experience, and she conveys every shadow and spark of the experience with absolute charm and graceful intelligence.

Though the story here centers primarily on the enigmatic and troubling Bruce Bechdel, played with utterly believable storm, confusion and steel by Robert Petkoff, his wife, Helen (Susan Moniz), emerges as a fascinating character, a mother who has made some giant compromises and will fiercely protect her children from making the same mistakes. Her song “Days and Days” is shattering. Bruce’s “aria,” “Edges of the World,” captures his conflicts and troubled state of mind in a sad and powerful way.

Fun Home began life as an extraordinary work of memoir on the page and has just grown richer in its journey to the stage, with emotional undercurrents bringing depth, beauty and profound reflection to a story of secrets, lies and discovering what it really means to grow up.

Fun Home continues through Feb. 19 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco Tickets are $29-$149. Call 415-358-1220 or visit

Freaks, ogres and lowered expectations

Shrek The Musical.Cadillac Palace Theatre..
The banished fairy tale characters let their freak flag fly in the touring production of Shrek The Musical now at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre. Below center: Alan Mingo Jr. as Donkey flirts with the magnificent dragon puppet. Below bottom: David F.M. Vaughn steals the show as the vertically challenged Lord Farquaad. Photos by Joan Marcus

I wanted to love Shrek The Musical because it’s an unlikely underdog. I didn’t love it.

Here you have a big Hollywood studio, DreamWorks, with a hit movie franchise (that, by the way, they pretty much ran into the ground) making its first foray onto Broadway – hoping for the success Disney had with The Lion King and Mary Poppins or that Universal had with Wicked.

So DreamWorks did what any big Hollywood studio would do in this situation: they threw money at some of the most talented people on Broadway and said, “Make us a hit.” One of the first people at whom they hurled money was Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes (American Beauty), who then hurled money at Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole).

The team then began to form. Mendes was out but director Jason Moore (Avenue Q) was in. So was composer Jeanine Tesori of Caroline, or Change fame. Lindsay-Abaire added lyricist to his duties as book writer, and a co-director, Rob Ashford (the current revival of Promises, Promises), was brought in during the pre-Broadway tryout in Seattle.

At this point, Shrek appears to be the opposite of an underdog: a highly capitalized movie studio willing to spend whatever it takes to play with the lions and the witches on Broadway.

But money and talent don’t always add up to success. Shrek The Musical began previews at The Broadway Theatre in November of 2008 and closed a little more than a year later.

Theater snobs and know-it-alls smelled a bomb – another contrived movie adaptation conceived in dollar signs more than theatrical creativity – and that’s what they got.

Shrek The Musical.Cadillac Palace Theatre..

For the national tour, the creative team reconvened and made significant changes, adding songs, trimming lines and characters (there are fewer fairy tale freaks on the road) and re-conceiving the dragon.

Suddenly the hit movie-based musical that seemed such a sure thing was starting over.

The Shrek now on display at the Orpehum Theatre as part of the SHN/Best of Broadway series is an underdog because, aside from the (very happy) kids in the audience, no one expects much from this show. And with those lowered expectations, Shrek is enjoyable.

The production labors mightily to seem effortless but doesn’t succeed. This is a hard-chugging entertainment machine crammed with cleverness, talent and appealing elements and yet it never becomes distinctive, never rises above its source material and never becomes anything more than an expensive carnival – pleasing but empty.

Disney was accused of creating Broadway-size theme park entertainments when Beauty and the Beast first hit the stage, and the same charge could be leveled here, which is kind of funny.

The whole Shrek franchise has positioned itself as the anti-Disney, the snarky, gassy, irony-filled opposite of the saccharine-sweet Disney fairy tales. But that ironic edge, especially on stage, seems desperate and overblown. Shrek the Musical includes throw-away spoofs of The Lion King, Les Miserables and Wicked, but it’s no more clever in its spoofing than The Producers or Urinetown or Bat Boy. The moment for musicals that rag on other musicals has passed. What we need now are musicals full of original ideas that can be spoofed a decade from now.

There’s nothing to spoof in Shrek except maybe the fabulous Tony Award-winning costumes by Tim Hatley (who also designed the sets). Hatley also created the superb dragon puppet (which takes four puppeteers and is voiced by the wonderful Carrie Compere).

Tesori’s music is appealing in the moment then vanishes. Lindsay-Abaire’s book has flashes of cleverness, and there’s even some heart in Act 2 when the Shrek/Princess Fiona romance begins to kindle. Their love duet, “I Think I Got You Beat,” is just like Irving Berlin’s “Anything You Can Do” except with more farting and belching.

Shrek The Musical

The performances (when the sloppy sound design actually lets you hear what the actors are saying) are sweet and funny, especially the lead performance by Eric Petersen as Shrek. Even encased in a green body suit, Petersen captures the gruff, lovable essence of the ogre.

Haven Burton as Princess Fiona is a game comedienne and a wonderful singer, and the energetic Alan Mingo Jr. as Donkey emerges as the kids’ favorite. David F.M. Vaughn as Lord Farquaad pretty much steals the show – part of that is his performance and part is the fact that he performs on his knees in a hilarious costume contraption that emphasizes his characters’ diminutive nature.

With so much to enjoy, it’s really a shame that Shrek is such an ogre-achiever. All that money, all that talent and such an unremarkable piece of musical theater.


Shrek The Musical continues through Jan. 2 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$99. Call (888) 746-1799 or visit for information.

The greening of Shrek’s Eric Petersen


Kermit the Frog said it best: it’s not easy being green. It wasn’t easy for Elphaba the witch of Wicked. It wasn’t easy for the Grinch (of stealing Christmas fame). And it certainly isn’t easy for Shrek, the good-hearted ogre from the swamp.

As difficult as it is for Shrek, that’s nothing compared to the challenges facing Eric Petersen (above), the actor playing him on tour in Shrek The Musical, which opens this week at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN/Best of Broadway season.

The method of converting the amiable Petersen, who was the standby for Shrek on Broadway, into a singing ogre takes about 90 minutes. It takes a village, as they say, and the finished Shrek is the work of Tim Hatley (Tony Award-winning costume and set designer), Naomi Donne (make-up design) and Michael Marino (prosthetic make-up design). You can see the finished product below (photo by Joan Marcus).

“It’s not so bad,” Petersen says on the phone from Denver. “I can go to a Zen place while it’s being done. Sometimes I can even sleep through half of the process.”

Watch Eric Petersen undergo a transformation that turns him from handsome actor to green ogre.

Previously, the closest Petersen had come to performing with much of his body and face obscured by a costume was a summer stock version of Cats some years ago.

The entire costume weighs about 45 pounds at the beginning of the show, and though much of the foam stuffing has been removed to give Petersen breathing and cooling room inside, the thing takes on an additional five pounds in sweat by the end of Act 1.

“This is definitely the most challenging thing I’ve done physically,” Petersen says. “We’ve got the routine down pretty well, but I’ll never get through a show and say, ‘Well, that was easy!’ But I’m happy to be playing Shrek and hope to be doing it for some time. But on two-show days, when I stay in make-up between shows, I think that whatever the next show is, it will be easier than this. Even if it’s King Lear it will be easier than this.”

Shrek The Musical.Cadillac Palace Theatre..

The touring Shrek is, by many accounts, a stronger show than the Broadway version. After the show closed in New York, the creative team, including directorsJason Moore and Rob Ashford, book writer/lyricist David Lindsay-Abaire and composer Jeanine Tesori all happily engaged in revising and improving the show.

Petersen was in the Broadway production (where he also played Papa Ogre and Straw Pig) and says rehearsing for the tour was like “working on a new show.” New songs, new lines and re-worked scenes made for an exciting process.

“As an actor, you want three things: you want to be working, you want to be working on stuff you’re proud of and you want to work on original material and feel like you’re being a creative influence,” he explains. “The Shrek tour wasn’t actually original, but it felt like we were working on something fresh and making it the best it could be. This show has taken some real steps forward since Broadway, and we’re all so proud of it.”

Shrek The Musical runs Dec. 1-Jan. 2 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$99. Call (888) 746-1799 or visit for information.

Eric Petersen, along with his Shrek The Musical co-star Haven Burton will perform with Debbie Gibson and Jason Brock for a one-night-only fundraising cabaret for the Richmond/Ermet AIDS Foundation and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. The show is at 8pm Dec. 13 at Theater 39 on Pier 39 in Fisherman’s Wharf. Tickets are $35-$65. Call 415 273-1620 or visit for information.

An ogre sings: the creation of Shrek

Shrek The Musical.Cadillac Palace Theatre..
Eric Petersen is Shrek, Alan Mingo Jr. is Donkey and Haven Burton is Princess Fiona in the touring production of Shrek The Musical. Photo by Joan Marcus

In today’s San Francisco Chronicle, I write about how Shrek, the hit series of animated films, became a Broadway musical and how that musical has actually improved – according to the creative team – in its transition to a touring show.

Read the story here.

There wasn’t room in the story for all the fantastic quotes from all the key players involved, so here are, in essence the “DVD extras.”

The creative team that turned Shrek into a Broadway musical is about as A-list as it gets in the commercial theater world. Here are the team members’ thoughts on making an ogre sing.

Book writer and lyricist David Lindsay-Abaire on the appeal of Shrek:
“At the heart of this show is somebody who feels he’s one thing and is perceived to be something else. I think we all feel like that to some degree. Here’s a beastly, monstrous ogre who feels he could be a romantic hero if only people knew. And there’s a pretty, polite princess who on the inside is a farting, belching ogress. Through the course of the story, all the characters embrace their essence rather than whatever’s on the outside. It makes them happier and allows them to find happiness and love. This is a universal story. It has pre-dated us all.”

Composer Jeanine Tesori on creating the sound of “Shrek”:
“The movie had an eclectic, drop-the-needle score that included ‘I’m a Believer’ and Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah.’ That just worked. I tried to do the same thing but with a musical theater sound. For the character of Shrek the feel is a little Celtic, which also feels like the sound of adventure. Then there’s some R&B and pop for Princess Fiona. I aimed for a Hi-Los sound for the fairy tale characters, but that was just too many ideas on one page.”

Co-director Rob Ashford on being described by his creative team as “unflappable”:
“I always tell my friends and associates, ‘We’re living the dream.’ We couldn’t’ be luckier to work in musical theater. I consider every obstacle a challenge. I was a dancer for a dozen years in Broadway shows and have such respect for the form. I feel blessed I get to work on the scale I do. To me this is a game that really matters, and I love the challenge of it.”

Co-director Jason Moore on turning a successful movie franchise into a mega-musical:
“It’s impossible to do this, but you have to try and forget the movie and focus on the guts of the story. It’s full of heart, full of comedy. All great musicals go for one or the other. The kind of writers David and Jeanine are, they want to mine some of the emotion while still delivering comedy and spectacle. They were such a quick, facile team – one of the most amazing teams I’ve worked with.”

Co-director Rob Ashford on his favorite moment in Shrek The Musical:
“It’s at the end of Act 1 when Shrek sings ‘That’s Who I’d Be.” What’s so amazing about that moment is that he was just a hero. He saved the princess from the dragon, and he can’t even see that he was a hero. There’s something so moving about that to me. It’s such a beautiful song, and there’s something about people not seeing the truth of themselves and needing to. It’s a moment that’s so well written, so well rendered.”

Book writer and lyricist David Lindsay-Abaire on that same moment:
“I am incredibly proud of ‘That’s Who I’d Be.’ It’s a wonderful song, and I say that with all humility. We had to fight to keep it in the show. It’s a great moment for Shrek to open up his heart and let us hear what he’s longing for. It’s the purest moment of just me and Jeanine. That song, that moment didn’t exist before. It’s all us.”

VIDEO EXTRA:Here’s the original Shrek, Brian D’Arcy James, singing “Who I’d Be” on the Today show.

Shrek The Musical runs Dec. 1-Jan. 2 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$99. Call (888) 746-1799 or visit for information.

Review: `Caroline or Change’

C. Kelly Wright is Caroline Thibodeaux in TheatreWorks’ Caroline, or Change (Anise Ritchie in the rear is The Moon). Photos by David Allen

TheatreWorks tackles challenging `Caroline’ with soaring results
Four stars (Rich, rewarding, moving)

I cannot imagine any other Bay Area theater company other than TheatreWorks having the guts to produce one of the most challenging – and, if done right, most rewarding – musicals ever written.

It is a testament to TheatreWorks founding artistic director Robert Kelley that he consistently programs the Bay Area’s most diverse theatrical season, complete with crusty old chestnuts and highly risky new work, plays and musicals. And his subscription base seems to go right along with him, relishing the opportunity to be pleased in ordinary ways and challenged in entirely new ways.

How else to explain the presence of Jeanine Tesori and Tony Kushner’s extraordinary musical Caroline, or Change, now running at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts? Without question, this is the most adventurous, most boundary-pushing musical to hit Broadway in a good, long time. Tesori calls it a folk opera, and she’s right. Her score sounds doesn’t sound like opera, but it has the weight of opera, though it incorporates the sounds of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s (the show is set in 1963) as well as the folk and blues sounds of Louisiana (where the show is set).

The Bay Area had a chance to see the phenomenal Broadway production of Caroline when lead producer Carole Shorenstein Hays brought it out to be part of the SHN/Best of Broadway season. It’s hard to imagine any version – let alone a regional theater production – measuring up to that superlative work.

But Kelley’s Caroline is every bit as good because it’s different enough to be its own thing. The primary difference is the intimacy of the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. The stage is big enough for a musical, but the house is small enough that you feel like you’re down in that sweltering basement (basements are unusual in Louisiana, where underground is underwater) with Caroline as she toils through the laundry of her employers, the Gellmans.

In the smaller space, you can really concentrate on the performances, which are entirely first rate, and on the score, which grows richer, more melodious and more emotionally complex with each hearing.

In the anchor role of Caroline Thibodeaux is Oakland’s C. Kelly Wright, a TheatreWorks veteran who has been away for a while but makes a welcome return to the stage in the meatiest role for a woman since Sondheim, Styne and Laurents created Mama Rose in Gypsy.

Not enough can be said about just how shattering Wright is as Caroline, the perpetually grumpy maid who says repeatedly: “I am mean, and I am tough, but $30 a week ain’t enough.” There are reasons Caroline is at odds with the world. Economics is a big part of it. She’s a divorced woman, 39 years old with four children (the eldest has been sent to Vietnam, “wherever that is,” Caroline says). She can barely read enough to find her way on a map, and she has deep, deep sorrow.

You feel every one of those sorrows in Wright’s blazing performance. Caroline’s already legendary Act 2 aria (again, it doesn’t sound like opera but there’s no better word for a song of such all-consuming emotion), “Lot’s Wife” is like a play unto itself. And Wright rises to the challenge of the piece and wallops the audience with the truest kind of hurt.

Much of Caroline is brainy and intellectual – not unlike an interesting New Yorker article – but when Kushner and Tesori decide to go for the heart, they do it in a big, beautiful way. And Wright is right there with them every step of the way.

Also giving a superb performance is 12-year-old Julian Hornik of Palo Alto. He plays Noah Gellman, and he thinks Caroline, his family’s maid, is the best thing ever. He calls her the president of the United States, imagines that she runs everything and that she’s “stronger than my dad.” Of course just about anybody is stronger than Noah’s emotionally distant, clarinet-playing dad (Ryan Drummond), who quickly got remarried after Noah’s mom died of cancer.

Hornik’s pure, sweet voice is assured beyond his years, and he handles the challenges of the score with aplomb.

Eileen Tepper is Rose, Noah’s new stepmom, who desperately wants to be a good mother in spite of the fact that Noah seems to hate her. Tepper emerges as the show’s third star with an emotionally grounded performance that aches with the character’s desperation to be good and to do the right thing.

As Kushner’s book delves into change – from the coins Noah leaves in his pants pockets that Caroline is expected to keep to the massive change sweeping the nation in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination and the rise of the Civil Rights movement – the excellent cast continually surprises and delights.

James Monroe Iglehart shows some devilish sass as Caroline’s singing and dancing dryer, but then he gets to be a dignified mourner as a bus driver who announces the death of the president. Valisia LeKae is superb as Caroline’s daughter, Emmie, who is going through her own kind of growing-up changes – changes that indicate that she would never settle for being a servant to white people.

There’s a dreamlike quality to this musical (hence the singing-and-dancing dryer and washing machine) that is captured beautifully in J.B. Wilson’s elegantly swampy set design and Pamila Gray’s firefly-enhanced lighting.

There’s so much to love about this musical and this production of it that it’s difficult to not write a dissertation about how this unusual story about an African-American woman and a Jewish-American boy at a time of cultural upheaval could only be told as a musical – as this musical.

But I won’t do that. All I can say is this: See TheatreWorks’ Caroline, or Change and open your head and open your heart.

Caroline, or Change continues through April 27 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $25-$61. Call 650-903-6000 or visit for information.

TheatreWorks’ new season

Jane Austen, Thronton Wilder, Tony Kushner and Golda Meir will all be there…sort of.

Robert Kelley, the founding artistic director of Mountain View’s TheatreWorks has just announced his company’s 38th season.

Unlike many theaters around the Bay Area, TheatreWorks begins its season in the summer, and this year, Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man, the story of deformed circus sideshow attraction John Merrick, kicks things off June 20. TheatreWorks produced the play, which, unlike the movie version, leaves the deformities to the imagination, in 1985.

In July comes the West Coast premiere of Theophilus North, Matthew Burnett’s adaptation of the charming Thornton Wilder novel of the same name.

Next up in August is the world premiere of a new musical based on Jane Austen’s Emma, the tale of a well-meaninng matchmaker who finally stumbles into her own true love. Paul Gordon (Broadway’s Jane Eyre) contributes music, lyrics and book.

In October comes more serious fare: William Gibson’s one-woman show Golda’s Balcony, a peek into the complex mind and heart of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.

For the holidays comes Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and with the new year comes a welcome old friend: the late Wendy Wassterstein (below), whose last play, Third, finally makes it to the West Coast.

In March 2008, Kathleen Clark’s Southern Comforts, a late-in-life love story, takes a bow, followed by the season-ending Caroline, or Change, with book and lyrics by Tony Kushner and music by Jeanine Tesori. If you saw the touring Broadway version in San Francisco, you know this is one of the most powerful and important musicals to come along in the last decade or so. If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s your chance.

Subscriptions for the season range from $100 to $373 and are available now. Single tickets go on sale June 1. Call (888) 273-3752 or visit for information.