Warmly received Off Broadway Caroline, or Change had a rougher go of it on Broadway in the 2003-2004 season, running just 136 performances and losing most of its six Tony Award nominations to the juggernauts Wicked and Avenue Q. With book and lyrics by Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and widely varied music by Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home) it’s among the most prestigious of musicals, with timeless, weighty themes.
And I didn’t much care for it.
Thanks to an acclaimed 2017 revival at England’s Chichester Festival Theatre that (after a year-long covid pause) has found its way to Roundabout’s Studio 54 for a limited run I had an opportunity to revise my initial opinion. As stubborn in my assessment as the title character is in hers I’m still lukewarm on it on the whole–but the parts that work, work very well indeed.
My issues stem mostly from the way in which the story is told. Loosely based on episodes from Kushner’s boyhood in marshy Louisiana and set amidst the fall and winter of the Kennedy assassination it’s the story of Caroline (Sharon D Clarke), a maid toiling thanklessly “16 feet beneath the sea,” as she never fails to tell us. Or, rather, she never fails to tell her only real friends, the inanimate objects in her life, including The Washing Machine, The Dryer, and The Radio, who sing and dance for her as she does the laundry and performs other household tasks.
Upstairs matters aren’t much healthier emotionally, as eight-year-old Noah (Adam Makké at the performance I saw), still grieving his mother, navigates between his largely absent father, a clarinet player (like Kushner’s dad), and his stepmother Rose (Caissie Levy), who doesn’t know how to reach him and is sensibly skittish around the formidable Caroline. Noah fancies himself Caroline’s best friend, who only tolerates his company, and isn’t much more open around her own three children, including her rebellious teen daughter Emmie (Samantha Williams). When Rose notices that Noah keeps losing his loose change in the laundry she insists that Caroline keep it, to teach him a lesson about finances and property. Initially reluctant, Caroline at least now has some money saved in her bleach cup to buy her surprised family necessities…but neither she nor Rose realize that Noah is onto their plan and is deliberately leaving his change in his pockets for her to keep, which becomes pivotal to the plot in the wake of a Hannukah party where he receives an unexpectedly large cash gift from his step-grandfather.
That second-act party scene, in which the historic bond between American Blacks and Jews is sorely tested, is the best in the show. Kushner’s book is the musical’s greatest asset…and the sequence is thankfully free of digressions from The Washing Machine, The Dryer, etc. Powered by Tonya Pinkins’ Caroline and Anika Noni Jones’s Emmie (its sole Tony winner) the original production was hobbled by static staging, which gave those fantasies a weird Beauty and the Beast quality that stopped the show in ways unintended. Michael Longhurst’s direction is livelier and brings out what’s best in Tesori’s score, which ranges from spirituals and klezmer music to blues and Motown (The Radio is a Supremes-style Greek chorus, mildly engaging and a better idea when Little Shop of Horrors had it). It still registers however as an unsatisfyingly hokey device to add “musical theatre” to what might have been a chamber piece, perhaps sung-through instead. (Or, frankly, just a well-written play about institutional racism and the generation chasm between a silent, festering mother and a more radicalized daughter, whose activism is right in keeping with our time as well as hers.)
Caroline’s anger is also a problem; we don’t learn what makes her tick until the second act, and she and Noah act in contrary ways that are recognizably human and flawed but still frustrating to experience, allowing the confused Rose and Emmie to more directly engage our sympathies. She’s both muted and incandescent, a tricky combination that the excellent Clarke makes believable amidst the forced make-believe. (The rest of the cast and the production, in a venue that tends to swallow sound depending on where you’re seated, are solid.) She’s something to see, but even in a staging I preferred Caroline remains an enigma, and Caroline, or Change a respectable, admirable puzzle.