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STAGE REVIEW

SpeakEasy's 'Caroline' captivates

There aren't any showstopping tunes, bursts of witty rhyming, or moments of easy uplift, all characteristics associated with great musical theater. But ''Caroline, or Change" is from beginning to end a masterpiece that earns its status partly by avoiding cliches of the form, and partly by substituting richer details at every turn.

This story of an 8-year-old Jewish boy, Noah Gellman, growing up in Louisiana, and his relationship to Caroline, the family's black maid, is playwright Tony Kushner's most personal work, and he also calls it his favorite. Considering that his oeuvre includes ''Angels in America" and ''Homebody/Kabul," that's saying something.

While there are elements of Kushner in Noah, he is even more concerned with Caroline, the Gellmans' maid. The great challenge for SpeakEasy Stage Company in bringing the work to Boston was finding a Caroline who could master the considerable demands of this complicated part and measure up to Tonya Pinkins, who was robbed of the Tony in 2004 by Idina Menzel of ''Wicked."

Director Paul Daigneault found an exciting Caroline in Jacqui Parker, known primarily as a nonsinging actor. Even better, he has created a winning production of his own, one that incorporates Kushner's extraordinary evocation of time and place as well as Jeanine Tesori's eclectic bag of musical influences.

Daigneault also finds ways to mirror George C. Wolfe's original staging, in which the world of Caroline and her three children alternates and intersects with that of Noah and his family. The show's great imaginative leap is having actors play inanimate objects that serenade Caroline in her loneliness. Set in 1963, it opens with Caroline the maid in the Gellman basement, where the washing machine, dryer, and radio are ''played" by singers recalling a variety of African-American musical styles.

But they're referencing these styles -- blues, R&B, gospel -- not imitating them. Tesori turns them all into her own musical language, in which jazz segues smoothly into klezmer and then into classical or ''Porgy and Bess"-like lamentation.

Parker leads a cast that doesn't quite master that language but comes close enough that the seamlessness of story and song remains intact. She is one of Boston's most accomplished actors and commands the stage like few others locally. Here she makes Caroline's joyless weariness emblematic of all kinds of oppression. (Kushner's left-of-center politics are not blatant, though they're certainly present.)

She can't hold a note as long or snap it off as ferociously as Pinkins, but she has very pretty, deep tones that, placed side by side with her acting, make hers as full-bodied a Caroline as one could wish for.

All of Kushner's characters are full-bodied, and the cast brings them to life with considerable style. Noah is a particularly difficult part, and Jacob Brandt (the Huntington Theatre Company's ''Falsettos") captures his sad awkwardness beautifully, particularly his love of the exotic Caroline, in whom he invests all kinds of powers. His mother has died, leaving his father a shell, though he has remarried. Michael Mendiola as Stuart, the father, and Sarah Corey as Rose, the stepmother, adeptly capture their characters' almost constant sorrow.

Caroline has a life apart from the Gellmans, trying to provide for three children at home and worrying about another in Vietnam. She seemingly has little use for friends, particularly Dotty, who tries to bring Caroline out of her depression. As Dotty, Merle Perkins has the best voice in the production, but the biggest spark comes from Wellesley College sophomore Shavanna Calder as Caroline's daughter, Emmie.

In a way, she is the most pivotal character onstage, because she represents hope for political change -- part of the meaning in the title. Blacks won't always be Negroes, women won't always be maids, and Calder's Emmie makes that abundantly clear every time she's onstage.

The other meaning of ''Change" revolves around Noah's propensity to leave money in his pants pockets, which Rose tells Caroline is all hers whenever she finds it while doing the wash. This leads to a confrontation in the second act that speaks volumes not only about the characters in the play but about black-Jewish relations in the second half of the 20th century. Parker and Brandt are at their best when things start to fall apart.

Daigneault has also assembled a fine group of backup singers who animate the washer, dryer, radio, moon, and bus. Equally impressive is the terrific seven-piece band propelled by conductor-pianist Jose Delgado. This is not an easy score, but Delgado and company -- notably Alejandro Oscar on clarinet -- make it seem so.

It would be disingenuous to say that this ''Caroline" nears the perfection of the original, which moved to Broadway after its launch at the Public Theater.

When a play or musical comes to a smaller stage, you hope that the intimacy makes up for the diminution in resources. But ''Caroline" doesn't have the room to breathe in the Roberts Theatre that it really needs -- most noticeable in the Hanukkah celebration in which the characters look like they're taking their lives in their hands by dancing around the dining-room table. The sound mix in the Roberts has never been quite right, either.

As the highly inflected socialistic step-grandfather, Sean McGuirk is only the latest local actor who comes across as Jewish as the Easter Bunny. (Are Nicholas Martin and Jeremiah Kissel available for tutorials?) Dick Santos and Dorothy Santos are much more effective as Stuart's parents.

But let's not get diverted from the production's strengths. The writers have created some of the most memorable characters in musical theater. And Daigneault has helped to make this ''Caroline, or Change" the crowning achievement of the local 2005-2006 season.

Ed Siegel can be reached at siegel@globe.com.

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