CAROLINE OR CHANGE
November 6, 2021
it's 1963, America is reeling from the assassination of JFK and confronting the Civil Rights Movement. Jobs are scarce for women, particularly uneducated women-of-color who become part of the great American domestic corps. They assist the "ladies of the house" and care for the young. But mostly, they are invisible.
Caught in the web of limited opportunities presented during this era, Caroline Thibodeaux (Sharon D. Clarke) works for a nice Jewish family in Louisiana.
An unlikely heroine, her escape becomes the basement with her brand new washing machine, the dryer and most coveted, the radio. Importantly, a little red plastic cup sits in the corner of the hamper where Caroline drops the loose change hiding in pants pockets usually belonging to the young son, Noah (Jaden Myles Waldman).
In this realistic musical written by Tony Kushner (author of Angels in America) with music by the amply talented Jeanine Tesori Caroline or Change's, dark humor somersaults over whimsical events that turn the radio, washer, dryer, bus and moon into living, singing, dancing people.
Astutely directed by Michael Longhurst, the musical plays against a backdrop of women finding their voices, earning degrees and busting into professional careers generally claimed by men. While politicians aim for the moon, the country reels in horror after the assassination of Kennedy and watches as Martin Luther King tries to heal the nation. But all this radiates as mere headlines behind Caroline's dilemma.
Overworked, exhausted, vexed by a divorce and frustrated by her inability to provide for and manage her 4 children, Caroline is stuck--unable to escape the basement or debt.
Rose Stopnick Gellman (Caissie Levy), well meaning but clueless, wants to teach her stepson a lesson about the value of money. Her plan requires her maid, Caroline, to liberate the change she finds in the wash. This provocative bargain is problematic because Rose feigns generosity by giving Caroline extra cash (quarters and dimes) while Caroline is offended at the idea of stealing from a baby (and simply not getting a raise). And yet, Caroline concedes because of her desperation for cash and debt relief. This action triggers the emotional upheavals that carry the musical to its conclusion.
In that magical place, the basement, Caroline smokes and dreams.
Outdoing the Supremes, the radio materializes into three Black women (Nasia Thomas, NYA, Harper Miles) in sparkling diva gowns and voices to match. The shiny new washing machine generates a sprightly Arica jackson, and its partner the dryer hums along with Kevin S. McAllister who doubles as the trundling bus that ferries Caroline home and back under the gaze of the lady in the moon (N'Kenge) -- actually, she's the lady in a swing and silver cape by the inventive Set and Costume Designer Fly Davis.
Besides the claustrophobic psychological drama cornering Caroline, the family is also caught in a depressing trap. Unable to communicate his pain after the death of his young wife, Stuart Gellman (John Cariani) forlornly plays the clarinet for psychic comfort. Resistant to Rose , Noah calls for his father at night, and ultimately transfers his love to a begrudging Caroline.
Dour and incessantly pessimistic, Caroline dominates the show with her commanding personality and ringing voice. Totally engrossed by Caroline, Noah is the one person who actually "sees" her and remains convinced she runs his universe.
The 2 and 1/2 hour show sustains a generous pace, animated through 60's style dance routines and vivid staging by choreographer Ann Yee. Musically, the score swings from Klezmer music to R & B, modern music and spirituals masterfully played under the baton of the long, fire red haired Associate Conductor, Anastasia Victory.
When Broadway tends to favor feel-good musicals bustling with magic and nostalgia, Caroline or Change challenges ideas about race, and communications between social classes and generations. A lot is packed inside a musical straddling the mecca of entertainment and our conscience.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis
Photos: EYE ON THE ARTS.Today