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"Caroline, or Change" full of raw feeling, captures strength of community theater

"Caroline, or Change" will show at the Civic Theatre from June 3-June 19, 2016.
Underwriting support from:
"Caroline, or Change" at the Civic Theatre

"Caroline, or Change" at the Civic Theatre /Courtesy of Grand Rapids Civic Theatre

Actors rehearsing for "Caroline, or Change"

Actors rehearsing for "Caroline, or Change" /Courtesy of the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre

I have strolled through Porter Hall, the rehearsal room, in the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre many times by now – and this time was no different, at first. The accent brick wall drawing in the four corners while the aging hardwood floor is masked by the tape-tattered carpet, groaning with each and every step. Cast outside the performance area are prop-riddled tables, hidden by everything from dining room sets, Hanukkah ornaments, and commonplace house appliances. One side of the room was reserved for the director and production team while the opposing wall was lined with chairs for the cast awaiting their scenes.

Well before the rehearsal, the cast and crew began meandering in and out of the room. The animated conversations and welcoming embraces radiated a sense of brimming comfortability. After everyone entered the room, actors began practicing choreography while crew members gave critiques and set up props. Weeks into rehearsals for Caroline, or Change, with the opening day being Friday June 3, the cast and crew were accustomed to one another and with the play.

Caroline, or Change is the story of two families going through critical changes in a pivotal point in our nation’s history. Caroline Thibodeaux is an African-American divorced mother of four, in a time when it was difficult to be both. She is the maid to a Jewish family, the Gellman’s, that just lost their matriarch and are having a difficult time adapting to the unexpected transition. The new mother of the household, Rose, is also struggling to cope with the move to the south and into a family struggling with a death from which she benefitted. Surrounding these families and their changes is a nation itself, seemingly altering before their eyes in 1963.

Being unfamiliar to Grand Rapids Civic Theatre until recently placed my expectations somewhere over my head. I knew the cast and crew were volunteers which is what lead me to be apprehensive in expecting too much. Though there were auditions, as in every production, I just couldn’t predict the quality of talent I would be witnessing. Those worries did not last long into the night.

The warm-ups began the shedding of my apprehension. There were a range of vocal exercises that anybody who took choir in middle school is familiar with, although to my surprise there was not a single person out of key. The bellowing of the “Ya Ya Ya’s” was followed by booming of “Do Do Do’s”, the harmonizing seeming effortless from each actor as they were gleaming with smiles while younger cast mates teased one another. This was comforting as it made it clear the musical talent of the bunch was no longer in question.

The entirety of the play is in song, with very few exceptions, constituting the musical a sung-through, not an opera, but just as much proficiency goes into this type of production. Lisa Butler, who plays Caroline, convinced me of all of the pain and suffering held by her character; not only because of the flawless execution of the opening piece, but because there was a sense of authenticity in the air that only seemed to surprise me.

The raw feeling which was being bled in every scene and heard in every note resonates the strength community theatre holds. The issues tackled in productions such as this are pertinent to the everyday lives of everyday individuals within our community. The organic nature of these emotions is resonating because these issues are hidden away from the eye of the public, though we are all aware of their existence. These are the issues that are taken on by community members for community members, to bring light to the topics from which most shy away.

Caroline, or Change perfectly captures the strength of community theatre. The edgy approach to topics many find easier to ignore is the bread and butter for a theatre dedicated to promoting the well-being of the arts, as well as the public in which it inhabits. It allows issues that are bleak and grey to be seen through a kaleidoscope array of color permitting truth and understanding.

As the rehearsal ended, I’d almost forgotten I was in Grand Rapids, the year was 2016, and that this was a cast and crew. The Grand Rapids Civic Theatre artfully captures all the hectic chaos found in 1963 and in household it is set in; I anticipate seeing the final product.

The Grand Rapids Civic Theatre, 30 N. Division Ave., Grand Rapids, MI 49503, will begin showing of "Caroline, or Change" June 3rd through June 19th with ticket prices ranging from $18-$35 and show times at 7:30 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. matinees.

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