Caroline or Change on Broadway Review

As the title character of “Caroline, or Change,” Sharon D Clarke sings a breathtaking 11 o’clock number called “Lot’s Wife” that sparks thunderous applause; the audience at Studio 54 is clearly thrilled by the performer’s soulful delivery. Some surely also burst into tears, saddened by the character’s despair.   But my enthusiasm for this first Broadway revival of Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s inventive, thoughtful and affecting collaboration comes not just from those aspects of the show that satisfy audience expectations about big Broadway musicals.  

What makes this work so powerful, and especially timely, is how this splendid cast tells a small story about change – literal pocket change – while offering a larger glimpse into the complex undercurrents in a tense moment of change in American history.

Act 1 finale

It is 1963, and Caroline Thibodeaux, a 39-year-old divorced mother of four, works as a maid for the Gellmans, a Jewish family of transplanted New Yorkers  living in Lake Charles, Louisiana. She is a sad, angry Black woman who never smiles, resenting, among much else, that she only makes $30 a week and spends most of her day in the Gellman’s hot basement doing the laundry. Her companions are the appliances, all of them characters who get their own songs — the  washing machine (Arica Jackson), the dryer (Kevin S. McAllister), and the radio (a Supremes-like trio portrayed Nasia Thomas, Nya, and Harper Miles.)  During the few moments we see her outside the basement, she’s waiting for the bus (also portrayed by McAllister), underneath the light of the moon (portrayed by N’Kenge.) She has rebuffed her old friend Dotty (Tamika Lawrence), envying and resenting her for going to college at night.

Caroline’s only human companion is nine-year-old Noah Gellman (portrayed in the performance I attended by Jaden Myles Waldman.) Noah adores Caroline; he calls her president of the United States, and says she’s stronger than his father. Caroline makes a show of not reciprocating, although she lets him light her cigarette (a shared transgressive act), and reluctantly acknowledges what they have in common — their sorrow. His mother recently died from cancer; so did Caroline’s mother. They are both loners, who feel like outsiders. Noah’s father Stuart Gellman (John Cariani) has remarried to his deceased wife’s best friend Rose Stopnick (Caissie Levy.) Noah keeps his distance from her, rebuffing her efforts to connect.  Stuart effectively has checked out on both his son and new wife, (presumably still grief-stricken), spending his days practicing the clarinet.  

Perhaps to prove herself a worthy stepmother, and cure Noah of an annoying habit, Rose decides that from now on, Caroline can keep any pocket change that Noah forgets to remove from his pants pockets when he puts them in the laundry.

 Rose is well-meaning: She tells Noah that his careless attitude towards his money shows a lack of respect for Caroline, who is struggling to get by. But it speaks volumes about the cluelessness endemic to Rose’s relative privilege. The new rule becomes a humiliation for Caroline, and drives the main action of the show.

Kushner has said that the story of “Caroline or Change” was inspired by his own experiences. He dedicated the piece to his family’s maid, Maudie Lee Davis, and there’s even a droll indirect reference to the future playwright’s budding sexual orientation; he uses his allowance to buy bubblegum and comic books, but also “Barbie doll dresses on the sly.” 

Kushner and Tesori, are savvy enough to keep the focus personal — on Caroline and Noah, and on their families. But Kushner also fills in the historical, political and cultural background of these portraits using a brilliant canvas. 

One scene I found  striking is a confrontation between two seemingly peripheral characters. Shortly after President John F. Kennedy is assassinated, the Gellmans have gathered various relatives together for a Hannukah party, including Rose’s father Mr. Stopnick (Chip Zien), who’s traveled from New York.   The Gellmans have asked Caroline to make the food for the party, and she’s enlisted her daughter Emmie (Samantha Williams) to help.   

Mr. Stopnick, an unreconstructed 1930s radical, is going on about politics, while the rest of his family try to ignore him.  “I been waiting since the ‘30s, selling goddamn hats for Macy’s, waiting for the revolution….Now the Negro leads the way.” But,he says, he disagrees with Martin Luther King Jr.’s strategy of non-violence, rejecting the approach as pointless martyrdom.

Emmie, who in previous scenes has visibly annoyed her mother (but secretly pleased her) by being headstrong and independent, is serving the food and overhears Mr. Stopnick. She speaks up, at first politely: “I think it’s a Negro thing, a southern thing, a Christian thing. Mister, you don’t understand how Dr. King has got things planned.”

Mr. Stopnick stays his ground, reflecting his convictions, but also, paradoxically the prejudices (ie sexism) of the era:

“Oh Jews can be nonviolent too.
There’s nothing meeker than a Jew!
 Listen girlie, we have learned: 
nonviolence will get you burned. “

They argue politics, more and more vehemently, until Caroline, furious and fearful that Emmie is talking back to a white man, orders Emmie back into the kitchen.

Mr. Stopnick speaks to Caroline: “Lady, please, since I come South, she’s my first real conversation. Let her stay! “

The irony is not glib. The scene is so richly layered that there’s not enough space here to unwrap it.   

It comes right after a scene in the kitchen (particularly timely) in which Emmie talks about the anonymous night-time toppling of a statue to a Confederate soldier.  The act has “agitated” the local white establishment, sending bloodhounds to find the “hoodlums” who done it.  And, then, right after the argument, Mr. Stopnick gives Noah the Hannukah gift of a twenty-dollar bill that brings the plot to a boil.

How many creative teams would risk such ambitious, cerebral scenes in a Broadway musical besides the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright of “Angels in America” and the Tony-winning composer of “Fun Home?”

I dwell on these scenes because they are – or should be – a selling point for this largely sung-through musical, which was originally commissioned by San Francisco Opera, and would surely be called a chamber opera, if that label didn’t spell doom for marketing a show on Broadway. Tesori’s pastiche score of blues, gospel, Motown AND Klezmer is impressive, and the performances of the splashy musical numbers are entertaining.There are even a handful of catchy hooks. But the music arrives on Broadway at a time when “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and “Tina” give theatergoers actual Motown and R&B hits of the 1960s to listen to. “Caroline…” is not a jukebox musical that’ll leave you humming.

Directed by Michael Longhurst, artistic director of London’s  Donmar Warehouse, this production of “Caroline, or Change” originated at the UK’s Chichester Festival Theatre in 2017, and had a run at the West End to much acclaim.  Fly Davis’ set design cleverly emphasizes the distance between the two families, by sticking the hellish basement where Caroline toils downstage, closest to the audience – making hers the default perspective – while placing the Gellmans on an elevated platform way upstage. It’s effective as a metaphor, but it’s unlikely to bowl you over — and neither will Davis’ costumes.

Sharon D Clarke will. This is not just because of her deeply felt, piercingly sung arias. It’s her embodiment of Caroline in her ordinary, everyday moments, down in the heat of the basement doing laundry, or in the heat of the kitchen. If Clarke’s performance can be called weighty, it’s because we see her character as weighed down by her lot in life, by her resentments, and by her fear of a world that’s at the cusp of change – a change that she doesn’t trust.

Clarke, making her Broadway debut,  is the one British holdover in a large cast that’s mostly comprised now of Broadway pros. Like Clarke, they are persuasively subsumed into their roles. Cassie Levy, for example, last seen on Broadway as the glamorous if moody queen Elsa in “Frozen,” nails the ordinariness and frustration of Noah’s stepmother Rose. Caroline is not the only character who’s not exactly embracing the joys of existence.  Even the bus is a downer, McAllister’s deep bass delivering the tragic news of JFK’s assassination — “the earth has bled….the President is dead.”

But “Caroline, or Change” ends not in sorrow, but in defiance. It concludes not with Caroline but with her daughter Emmie, and Samantha Williams’ inspiring performance is one you can hang your hopes on. Near the end, she sings:

“I’m the daughter of a maid,
in her uniform, crisp and clean!
Nothing can ever make me afraid!
You can’t hold on, you Nightmare Men,
your time is past now on your way
get gone and never come again!
For change come fast and change come slow but everything changes!
And you got to go!”

Caroline or Change
Studio 54 through January 9, 2022
Running time: 2 hours and 25 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission
Tickets: $59 – $159
Book and lyrics by Tony Kushner; Music by Jeanine Tesori; 
Directed by Michael Longhurst; Choreographed by Ann Yee;
Scenic and Costume Design by Fly Davis; Lighting Design by Jack Knowles; Sound Design by Paul Arditti; Hair and Wig Design by Amanda Miller; Make-Up Design by Sarah Cimino;  Orchestrations by Rick Bassett, Joseph Joubert & Buryl Red 
Cast: Sharon D. Clarke, Gabriel Amoroso, Alexander Bello, John Cariani, Joy Hermalyn,
Arica Jackson, Tamika Lawrence, Caissie Levy, Adam Makké,
Kevin S. McAllister, Harper Miles, N’kenge, Nya, Richard Alexander Phillips, Jayden Theophile, Nasia Thomas, Jaden Myles Waldman, Samantha Williams, Stuart Zagnit, Chip Zien

Photographs by Joan Marcus

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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