Raleigh Little Theatre has a great, full-blown musical onstage in the Sutton Theater. Caroline, or Change is a fully-staged and wonderfully cast musical about a poor working woman in southern Louisiana, at Lake Charles. The show offers some nicely done nuances and a dynamite lead singer, which make this a blockbuster of a musical. With a cast of seventeen and a crew that multiplies that number, RLT has a surefire hit on their hands.

Caroline (Lora Deneen Tatum) is a maid in the household of the Gellmans in 1963. In fact, the play is set in November and December of 1963, placing it almost exactly fifty years ago. Caroline is a tough-as-nails, straightforward working woman who does the cleaning and the laundry daily, for a mere $30/week. In this era, when the president is trying to raise the minimum wage, this story is as current as if it were really 1963. Thirty dollars a week is slave wages, even then.

Caroline works for the Gellmans, who have problems of their own. Mr. Gellman (Brian Fisher) is a musician, deeply rooted in his music. He is on his second marriage, to Rose (Monique Argent Gannon), who finds it nearly impossible to get close to her eight-year-old stepson, Noah (Arel Marsh). Noah’s mother died some time ago, but her ghost haunts the place. Noah himself clings to what he feels is a friendship with Caroline, but she does not exactly return the favor.

The scenes meld nicely into one another as we meet the family and journey deeper into their lives. Scene one shows Caroline in the downstairs laundry room, with the brand new washer/dryer that has been ensconced there. The show gives characterizations to many inanimate objects, such as the washer (Emily Nixon), the dryer (Tim Smith), the moon (Tina Morris-Anderson), and the radio, which receives a full-fledged trio of voices a la the Supremes (Mary Wingate, Nancy Lee Speers, and Faith Jones). Smith does double duty as the bus later in Act I. All these voices sing to Caroline, who makes it clear that “$30 Ain’t Enough,” to be doing the work she must do at 39 years of age.

As Caroline and her fellow employee, cook Dotty Moffett (Emelia Cowans), wait for the bus that evening to go home, they learn the news that President Kennedy has been shot. There follows a nicely-turned dedication to the fallen in “JFK,” a medley of voices as each character adds his or her thoughts.

The play moves smoothly through twelve scenes, six per act, as things begin to come to a boil at the Gellman house. Rose has been trying to teach Noah how to handle money, and she chafes at the fact that he leaves his money often in the pocket of his pants, where Caroline finds it almost daily, and returns it to the lad. Rose tells Caroline that if Noah cannot take better care with his money, then Caroline is to keep what she finds rather than return it. This leaves Caroline torn; while she could certainly use the extra small sum, she is very reluctant to “steal it from a baby.” Nevertheless, when Noah makes a point of leaving quarters in his pants, Caroline gratefully takes them home to her children, Emmie (Brishelle Miller), Jackie (G. Luke Lair), and Joe (Ricardo Razon IV). But when Noah leaves a twenty dollar bill in his pocket, a Chanukah gift from his grandfather, Caroline tucks it into her own pocket. When Noah comes home from school and demands the money back, Caroline grudgingly acquiesces. But she leaves the household then and there, and does not return.

RLT has assembled quite a cast for this performance, with exciting contributions from many of the cast, like Morris-Anderson’s “Moon Changes,” which blended nicely with Tatum in Caroline’s contemplating her life. The one trouble I had with the group was a decided lack of enunciation, making it impossible to understand just exactly what was being sung. This detraction was more evident, strangely enough, among the adults than the children, who did a superb job of being heard and understood.

Director Karen Dacons-Brock has selected an orchestra of six as accompaniment, under the direction of Scott R. McKenzie, which provided a fine undercurrent of jazz or blues, depending on Caroline’s mood. Tatum as Caroline was strong of stature and of voice, and her excellent solos powered this musical from start to finish. Caroline, or Change is a hit, and it is mostly upon the shoulders of this one actress that this is so. With some truly fine support from the kids in the show, and with dynamic music throughout, Caroline is a fine evening’s entertainment, and well worth your time.

Caroline, or Change continues through Sunday, March 2. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.