The appearance of “Caroline, or Change” on the Ray of Light Theatre roster felt like a potentially exciting anomaly, as bookended by the company’s more typical grue-sical fare of serial killers (“American Psycho”) and sweet transvestites (“The Rocky Horror Show”).
This 2004 Broadway musical is a complex, sung-through work by composer Jeanine Tesori (“Fun Home” and “Shrek The Musical”) and playwright-lyricist Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”).
Set in the intersection of the nascent civil rights movement, Kennedy’s assassination and the Vietnam war, it examines the cultural, racial and social constructs and conflicts of a lower middle-class family of Southern Jews in Louisiana and the “Negro” maid and her family who serve them.
It’s serious, operatic material, and director Jenn BeVard has assembled a solid cast. Under the tutelage of David Möschler, one of the best theatrical music directors in the Bay Area, the principals sing with gusto, passion and pathos, and can be forgiven if roughly 10 percent of Tesori’s extremely rangy score feels just beyond their reach.
What can’t be forgiven (or solved, perhaps) are the abominable acoustics of the Victoria Theatre, which sound designer and engineer Jerry Girard and Anton Hedman seem unable to overcome. This is an extremely literate work that begs audiences to lean in and absorb its messages. That was too frequently impossible on Friday’s opening night, much to the overall production’s detriment.
Still, in the title role, Jasmyne Bryce is a wonderous discovery, balancing the resignation of a lifetime of oppression and servitude against Caroline’s fierce commitment to justice and to her family. Her Act 2 aria, “Lot’s Wife,” is a breathtaking explosion of pain and resistance.
Roy Eikleberry and Katie Pimentel garner empathy as her employers, bound in confusing times and a relationship that does not nurture them, and the anthropomorphized appliances — the delicious Leslie Ivy (The Washing Machine), the stentorian Anthone Jackson (The Dryer) and the rhythmic and righteous trio of Majesty Scott, Elizabeth Jones and Cadarious Mayberry (The Radio) — provide wonderful commentary and counterpoint to the action.
The pivotal role of 8-year-old Noah, whose pocket change sets up the conflict, is played with wonderful nuance and acuity by Christopher Apy. The same is true of Antonio Banks (Joe), Royal Mickens (Jackie) and particularly Markalia Dyson (Emmie) as Caroline’s children.
Also notable were the strong voices of Jacqueline Dennis (The Moon), Martin Bell (The Bus), and the spunk-and-sass style of Phaedra Tillery (Dotty).
Ray of Light deserves encouragement for attempting the challenging work, but similar efforts in the future will require a change of either approach or venue to satisfy.
Caroline, or Change
Presented by Ray of Light Theatre
Where: Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; closes Oct. 5
Tickets: $15 to $40