Past Reviews

Broadway Reviews

Caroline, or Change

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 27, 2021

Caroline, or Change. Book and lyrics by Tony Kushner. Music by Jeanine Tesori. Directed by Michael Longhurst. Music direction by Joseph Joubert. Music supervision by Nigel Lilley. Choreography by Ann Yee. Set and costumes design by Fly Davis. Lighting design by Jack Knowles. Sound design by Paul Arditti. Orchestrations by Rick Bassett, Joseph Joubert, and Buryl Red. Music contractor Antoine Silverman. Hair and wig design by Amanda Miller. Makeup design by Sarah Cimino. Associate director Colette Robert. Associate choreographer Monique Smith.
Cast: Sharon D Clarke, Arica Jackson, Nasia Thomas, Nya, Harper Miles, Gabriel Amoroso, Adam Makké, Jaden Myles Waldman, Kevin S. McAllister, Joy Hermalyn, Stuart Zagnit, Caissie Levy, John Cariani, Tamika Lawrence, N'Kenge, Samantha Williams, Alexander Bello, Richard Alexander Phillips, Jayden Theophile, and Chip Zien.
Theater: Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street (Between Broadway and 8th Avenue)

Adam Makké and Sharon D Clarke
Photo by Joan Marcus
The revival of the Tony Kushner/Jeanine Tesori musical Caroline, or Change, opening tonight at Studio 54, has put all its eggs in one basket. Everything hinges on Sharon D Clarke's performance in the title role of Caroline Thibodeaux, a Black maid who is hanging on by a thread in Lake Charles, Louisiana, in 1963, against a backdrop of the assassination of the President and the burgeoning civil rights movement. Clarke's performance is a knockout, but no one can carry this challenging work on their own, as it seems she is being asked to do in this generally uninspired production.

Caroline, or Change is basically a chamber work that is being treated as a more-or-less traditional Broadway musical, albeit one that has the atypical overarching theme of bottomless sorrow.

That theme is exquisitely captured in Clarke's wrenching rendition of "Lot's Wife," the 11 o'clock number which should end the show, but doesn't. This apparent inability to pare things down to the essentials is characteristic of Kushner's writing style. He is a playwright who tends to fill his plays with seemingly everything that captures his imagination while he is writing. He certainly succeeded in finding a remarkable balance in Angels in America, but Caroline, or Change looks like a manifestation of attention deficit disorder. Every time we are caught up in the story of Caroline, we are distracted by some other element of the show.

The nub of the plot is this: Caroline, a divorced mother of four whose own dreams for herself have been repeatedly thwarted, works as a low-paid maid. She makes it clear from the start that she is living "underwater" and is barely managing to hold things together financially or emotionally. Thanks to Sharon D Clarke's uncompromising laser-sharp performance, Caroline becomes a fully realized character, a complicated blend of hurt, anger, disappointment, and fear. The defensive walls she has erected around her are thick. But despite a shielding layer of protective imagination that manifests as singing and dancing appliances and a singing moon, those walls are crumbling. She is confronted with the ultimatum: Remain as you are, Caroline, or change your life.

If we were allowed to stay connected with Caroline Thibodeaux's story, there would be more than enough to carry a fully realized chamber musical. But there is another sorrowful story to relate, that of the family she works for, the Gellmans.

At center is eight-year-old Noah (Adam Makké in the performance I attended; the role is rotated among three young actors). In his own way, Noah is experiencing a child's version of Caroline's upheaval. His mother has recently died of cancer, his father Stuart (John Cariani) is withdrawn and distant, and a new stepmother, Rose (Cassie Levy), is unable to break through to him. It also falls to Rose, a liberal New Yorker who feels adrift in Louisiana, to deal with Caroline, whose name Rose inadvertently but repeatedly mispronounces as "Carolyn." Given Caroline's intransigence and Rose's miscalculated urge to be of help, this is not a happy relationship.

Sharon D Clarke and Samantha Williams
Photo by Joan Marcus
Here's where the title takes on its second meaning. It seems that Noah, who prefers Caroline's cantankerous company to that of his family, has a habit of leaving loose change in his pocket, which turns up in the wash. Up to now, Caroline has always returned the nickels, dimes, and quarters to Noah. But Rose has come up with a new plan: any change Caroline finds is hers to keep. It's win-win in her eyes. Caroline gets a little extra money, and Noah learns a lesson in economics. So now we have an interpretation that says: Retain your dignity, Caroline, or give it up and take money from a little boy in order to help your own family.

All of this and much more tsuris is set against the historic context of the 1960s, captured in theatrical snapshots: a toppled statue of a Confederate soldier, the assassination of President Kennedy, Motown music on the radio, and Caroline's eldest son risking his life in Vietnam. Add to the mix Stuart Gellman's parents (Joy Hermalyn and Stuart Zagnit) and Rose's argumentative liberal father (Chip Zien) who have gathered for the Chanukah celebration; Caroline's children, including her outspoken daughter Emmie (Samantha Williams); and Caroline's erstwhile friend Dotty (Tamika Lawrence, quite good as she tries to provide emotional support to the stubbornly recalcitrant Caroline). All of this, plus the performing appliances and the lyrically sung commentary provided by the moon (N'Kenge). It all makes for one massive scrambled egg of a narrative.

For her part, composer Jeanine Tesori has provided a wide range of musical styles in support of the many and varied elements of the story, ranging from spirituals and blues to Motown tunes and klezmer clarinet pieces. She has also incorporated sections that use classical music, and others that allow Kushner to toy with the words of familiar Christmas and Chanukah songs. If my ears are to be trusted, I'm pretty sure I heard some musical nods to other Broadway show tunes, including a bit of Hair and a touch of Company. It's an interesting musical gumbo, to be sure, but the constant switching of styles does add to the diffuse nature of the work as a whole.

In the end, it has fallen to director Michael Longhurst to find a coherent pathway for everyone to follow. But Caroline, or Change is Longhurst's first musical, and whatever inventive skill he has brought to well-received productions of plays like Amadeus and Constellations has not translated well here. Despite the use of a two-level set (designed by Fly Davis), dual turntables, and a flying moon, the staging comes off as static and unimaginative. Only Sharon D Clarke, who won an Olivier for her performance of the role in London, is able to push through to rise to the occasion by giving us a memorable flesh and blood character named Caroline Thibodeaux.