Caroline, or Change
“Change come fast, change come slow,” sings the radio during Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s richly layered musical “Caroline, or Change,” now being given a deeply stirring revival by the Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54. Changes, both personal and political, challenge almost all the characters we meet in 1963 Louisiana. Yet none of them are as ill-prepared to face them as the hard-as-steel, black 39-year-old maid Caroline Thibodeaux, portrayed to titanic perfection by the British actress Sharon D. Clarke in an unforgettable Broadway debut.
To be fair, Caroline is stuck in more ways than one. She’s constantly doing laundry -- 16 feet below sea level -- in the basement of the home of her white Jewish employers: a milquetoast clarinetist named Stuart Gellman (a well-cast John Cariani) and his second wife, Rose (a truly superb Caissie Levy), a well-meaning New Yorker who is struggling to adapt both to southern living and being a “mother” to Stuart’s 9-year-old son Noah (the touching Adam Makke, at my performance).
More importantly, Caroline is prevented by her own attitude – she’s tough and mean – her lack of education (not uncommon for women of her generation) and, above all, the real need to feed and clothe her children from bettering her circumstances. True, neither the urgings of her headstrong teenaged daughter Emmie (a spirited Samantha Williams) or fellow maid and good friend Dotty (the excellent Tamika Lawrence) can thrust Caroline into the future; but Kushner’s libretto makes it abundantly clear how much societal norms are a primary cause of Caroline’s stasis.
Only one thing ultimately threatens the status quo: Rose – who is the epitome of what we now call white privilege (as well as the daughter of a lifelong socialist, brilliantly played by Broadway veteran Chip Zien) -- misguidedly urges Caroline to keep all the change she finds in the pockets of Noah’s pants. In deciding whether to keep the money, Caroline’s strong moral center is shaken to its core – with unexpected consequences for everyone in her orbit.
Not that it’s such a large orbit. Having shut herself off from much of the world, Caroline’s “friends” are mostly inanimate things that Kushner has chosen to anthropomorphize -- from the upbeat basement radio (sublimely sung by Nasia Thomas, Nya and Harper Miles) to the bubbly washing machine (Arica Jackson), the glamorous moon (a divine N’Kenge) and even the rickety bus (Kevin S. McAllister) who announces JFK’s assassination.
Fortunately, Tesori’s score for these “characters” deftly incorporates a wide variety of musical styles from 1960’s Motown to opera, bringing them to musical life. Still, having appliances vocalize their “thoughts” remains a jarring touch in Kushner’s otherwise ultra-realistic script – a problem that some audiences may not be able to overcome.
Further, director Robert Longhurst (who first helmed this production at England’s Chichester Festival in 2017) sometimes gives these objects too much prominence; for example, the radio trio (beautifully costumed by Fly Davis) too often seems to be auditioning for “Dreamgirls.” Indeed, much of Longhurst’s staging – from the statue that greets us immediately to a ridiculous rain shower towards the show’s end – feels like a desperate attempt to fill Studio 54’s admittedly vast stage.
There’s irony in those choices, as it happens, since the show’s most powerful moment has the incredibly moving Clarke, standing alone center stage, talking to God in the magnificent musical monologue “Lot’s Wife.” That song and its show-stopping performance is a few minutes that, pardon the pun, will be life-changing for many of the people lucky enough to experience it.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Sharon D Clarke, Alexander Bello, John Cariani, Arica Jackson, Tamika Lawrence, Caissie Levy, Harper Miles, Jonah Mussolino, Nya, Chinua Baraka Payne, Nasia Thomas, Stuart Zagnit, Chip Zien
254 West 54th Street
New York, NY 10019