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‘Caroline, Or Change’ a symphonic musical that thrills and distresses

By Austin Riffelmacher

Musical theatre is not known for its subtlety.

That’s not a swipe at the genre – it’s just that musicals thrive on explosions – explosions of feeling that lead into a song, explosions of drama that propel the plot forward.

But when Caroline Thibodeaux, in the musical “Caroline, or Change,” out of unmitigated anger whispers to 8-year-old Noah Gellman late in the second act that “Hell’s so hot it makes Lesh fry. And hell’s where Jews go when they die,” subtlety doesn’t just work as the unsettling precursor to the explosive number, “Lot’s Wife.”

It proves that when musicals go where you didn’t expect them to go, they are the most productive of theatrical experiences when they challenge us to prick our conscience and observe when we as humans fail each other.

Her hideous statement is in response to Noah’s proclamation that President Lyndon Johnson is building a bomb to “kill all Negroes.” His statement is ridiculous and clearly concocted by the mind of a little boy.

Caroline’s, however, resembles a real-life Anti-Semitic rhetoric. As an adult, she should know better.

The tragedy of the moment is that for the past two hours we’ve seen Noah’s infatuation with Caroline. He loves her and is one of the few people to have complete respect for her, and in her own way, she loves him too.

All this drama starts over a $20 bill left in Noah’s pocket that Caroline found doing laundry. Caroline has been authorized by Noah’s stepmother Rose that she can keep whatever he leaves in his pants.

Noah, in his love for Caroline, purposefully begins leaving change for her, but the $20 was left there accidentally. Noah symbolizes that people are always willing to give change to poorer people, but not substantial amounts of money, whereas Caroline exemplifies the shame people feel when they think they’re getting handouts.

The “Change” in the musical operates on the monetary symbolism and how money changes us. Change is also presented in the characters’ resistance to it.

“Caroline, or Change” has received an extraordinarily uncompromising revival by the Roundabout Theatre Company on Broadway. The production, originally from London, has given this once niche show its moment in the spotlight.

Most of its revelatory nature is due to the purgative performance by Sharon D. Clarke in the role of Caroline. As the 39-year-old Black house maid to the Gellman family in 1963, Clarke creates fear, heartbreak, and magnetism in our hearts contemporaneously.

It helps, at least for New York audiences, that Clarke is a Brit who transferred with the production. One look at her bio, and you realize she is an abnormally gifted performer. In London, she had played everything from Ma Rainey to Linda Loman, and even a stint as Rafiki in “The Lion King.”

Clarke’s current role feels tailored made for her, and the performance is strengthened by American audiences’ lack of history with her. She doesn’t allow us to see the “acting” and just exists as Caroline.

The rest of the company does a fine job not standing in Clarke’s shadow.

Gabriel Amoroso is one of the alternate child actors playing the role of Noah. He seems unintimated by Clarke’s authority. Together, her dominance on the stage and his wholesome presence brings a real veracity to the story.

A musical with roughly 15 actors and the primary setting of a Louisiana basement doesn’t sound like it would be very entertaining, or witty. The librettist Tony Kushner and composer Jeanine Tesori’s clever work around is the magical realism created by the singing Washer, Dryer, and Radio.

It sounds like a fatal decision on paper, but the choice to have the objects come alive and have conversations with Caroline establishes her solitude and her desire for escape.

The Moon is another character in the show, circling back to the show’s theme in the number “Moon Change.” The celestial body sings above Caroline, “Change come fast, but change come slow, Caroline Thibodeaux.”

“Caroline” is mostly sung-through leaving most of the text reliant on Kushner’s lyric abilities. The playwright, most known for drawn out dramas like “Angels in America” is actually a very good lyricist.

In his review of the original Broadway production in 2003, Ed Siegel wrote in the Boston Globe that “Caroline” was “every bit as smart as Sondheim and every bit as emotionally compelling as Rodgers and Hammerstein.”

I would go as far as to say that Kushner is more in line with R+H musicals here because he tackles the subject no Sondheim musical does except for “West Side Story” – race in America.

The aforementioned “Lot’s Wife” encapsulates the daily psychology of Black alienation. Caroline remarks that someday “Black folks” will live like kings, but she won’t because she can hardly read. On the other hand, she recognizes her strength and wagers no one is stronger than she is, an assertion Noah had at the very top of the show.

Tesori, who wrote the mundane, yet earnest musical “Fun Home,” wrote the music for “Caroline.” The best numbers in the show are the first several songs.

As Caroline turns on her appliances, the music, appropriately, is electric. When Noah sings about her, the music is triumphant, praising her like a war hero. When Rose enters, the recitative is purposefully irritating. Rose’s character is entirely unsympathetic, she really is just trying her best, yet there is something deeply aggravating about her interactions with Caroline.

Michael Longhurst is making his Broadway musical directorial debut with “Caroline” and his staging is lean and nimble. By many standards, the show is small, but it never feels as such. The show moves a lot and the use of space on Fly Davis’ set is unanticipated.

Transitions are something audience members take for granted in the theater. It is my opinion that musicals can live, or die, based on transitions alone.

Nowadays when a transition takes me by surprise, it’s as if the heavens open and Dionysus lets the fruits of great theater pour down on you.

In the current Broadway revival of “Caroline, or Change,” the clouds literally part and let water pour on to the stage as we move from the number “Lot’s Wife” into “Salty Teardrops.”

As the most successful heir to Brechtian methods, Kushner clearly knows that after Caroline asks God to murder her instead of letting her sorrow and bitterness make her an evil woman, the audience is crying – not because of how moving a moment it is for the character – it is a recognition of their own failure in their lives to eradicate hatred within themselves.

“Take Caroline away ... take her away I can’t afford her” she sings. As she reconciles with Noah at the end, sorrow doesn’t ever go away, and they may never talk about how they’ve hurt each other.

But, the lesson of this musical is to find those subtleties in our lives, good and bad, and use them to change.

Grade A : Thrilling and distressing


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