Musical Stage Company & Obsidian Theatre/Caroline, or Change, book and lyrics by Tony Kushner, music by Jeanine Tesori, directed by Robert McQueen, Winter Garden Theatre, Jan. 30 to Feb 15. Tickets available at web.ticketking.com.
The 2003 American musical Caroline, or Change was a sensation when it was first mounted in 2012 at the Berkeley Street Theatre. You couldn’t beg, buy, or steal a ticket, and needless to say, the show won big at both the Toronto Theatre Critics and Dora Awards. This remount at the larger Winter Garden Theatre with a mostly brand new cast (there are two repeats) promises to be just as popular. In truth, there isn’t a weak link on stage, and the impact of the show is electrifying.
The story is set in Lake Charles, Louisiana in 1963, a year that saw the Kennedy assassination and the gearing up of the civil rights movement. Against this backdrop of monumental change, we meet the African-American maid Caroline Thibodeaux (Jully Black) who works for the liberal, if dysfunctional, Gellman family who are Jewish. Caroline is a single mother of four who earns barely enough to keep her family afloat. She has been a maid for 22 years, and is bitter and disappointed about how her life has turned out. A sea of emotions may be swirling beneath the surface, but to the outside world, including her own children, Caroline presents a repressed and icy demeanour.
Nonetheless, to the nine-year-old, desperately unhappy Noah Gellman (Evan Lefeuvre), Caroline is a lifeline. He lost his mother to cancer, and he hates his new stepmother Rose Stopnick Gellman (Deborah Hay). His professional musician father Stuart (Damian Atkins) continues to yearn for his dead wife, and is emotionally detached from both Noah and Rose. Stuart’s parents (Oliver Dennis and Linda Kash) try to provide some normality to the family, while Rose’s left-leaning father (Sam Rosenthal), on a visit from New York City, rails against Martin Luther King’s advocacy of non-violence. He wants a revolution.
Other major characters are Caroline’s supposed friend Dotty Moffett (Alana Hibbert) who is also a maid, but is taking night classes at college to improve her lot, and Caroline’s fierce and fiery daughter Emmie (Vanessa Sears) who has embraced the changes about to sweep the South because of the civil rights movement. We also meet Caroline’s young sons, Jackie (Moses Aidoo) and Joe (Micah Mensah-Jatoe), who support their mother unswervingly, even in the face of her coldness. The fourth and oldest child, Larry, is a soldier in Vietnam, and is another worry that Caroline must cope with. (Both Hibbert and Hay were in the 2012 cast with Hay winning a best supporting actress award from the Toronto Theatre Critics.)
This ambitious musical is certainly challenging in terms of structure, as Kushner’s book moves between reality and fantasy. Caroline’s inner life is reflected by inanimate objects who give voice to her true feelings. She spends much of her working hours in the over-hot basement doing the laundry, and that is where the bulk of the fantasy takes place. The Washing Machine (Keisha T. Fraser) is a nag that either hounds Caroline, or sends her warnings. The Radio is manifested in a Motown singing trio (Camille Eanga-Selenge, Samantha Walkes, and Hibbert) who come up with platitudes. The Dryer (Stewart Adam McKensy) seems to foment rebellion. And then there is the Moon (Measha Brueggergosman), the know all, see all, that neither helps nor hinders what happens beneath her.
Caroline, or Change is a through-composed show with very little dialogue. The much-lauded Tesori has provided a very attractive score that includes spirituals, blues, Motown, and both Jewish klezmer and folk music, along with snippets of classical music and traditional Christmas carols. Each song is cleverly specific to the character, and the score, therefore, acts as a psychological throughline. The ensembles are complicated in terms of composition as the characters never sing the same tune, but perform contrapuntally. Tesori has given the Moon gorgeous runs, and the role needs a trained opera singer to negotiate its difficulties, which, of course, Brueggergosman performs to ravishing perfection.
The multi-Juno Award-winning and platinum recording artist Jully Black, making her musical stage debut, is better known as Canada’s glamorous Queen of RnB/Soul. She is wonderful as the very unglamorous Caroline, but sometimes she loses words when she speaks quickly in order to sound more harsh. When she sings, however, she is dynamite, and her rich, resonant voice fills the space with heart-felt sound. In a cast of very talented people, there are two standouts who should be noted. Vanessa Sears’ Emmie sparkles with charisma, not to mention that the lady can sing up a storm and has acting chops up the whazoo. As for young Evan Lefeuvre, he certainly holds his own against the adults while executing some difficult singing.
The word “change” of the title is manifold and embraces many aspects. Whether it is the coins that Noah carelessly leaves in his pocket, or ruptures in the dynamics of both the Gellman and Thibodeaux families, or the transformation in Black/White relations that is afoot in the land, big or small, changes happen and time does not stand still. All the characters are caught up in them, and the result is a complex musical that is as disturbing as it is provocative.
We can’t leave without mentioning the creative team whose talent was behind the original 2012 production, and are responsible for the remount. They include director Robert McQueen, choreographer Tim French, music director Reza Jacobs, set designer Michael Gianfrancesco, lighting designer Kimerly Purtell and costume designer Alex Amini. If the adage is, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, then keeping the 2012 team intact has ensured a classy production of Caroline, or Change that packs an emotional wallop.
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