A thought kept coming to this criticism throughout Caroline, or change, and long after: “No one is OK here.” Throughout the period, you wonder what happy ending can be achieved – and to the great merit of the musical opera, it doesn’t. This spiky-shouldered show holds up to a happy ending and easy reading almost as much as its title character seems so determined to push back on cuteness and connection.
Tony Kushner’s 2003 musical (he wrote the book and lyrics, Jeanine Tesori the music) consistently goes against expectations of all kinds, as you can imagine from the playwright behind Angels in America, another unique and absolutely unique canvas. Caroline, or change looks and sounds beautiful, but it is also a provocative and alluring curiosity in terms of history, structure and character.
This is the Roundabout Theater Company / Broadway embodiment of the 2017 UK production, which debuted at the Chichester Festival, before heading to the West End.
We are in November 1963 in Lake Charles, Louisiana. When we first meet dark maid Caroline Thibodeau – the astonishing Oliver Award-winning Sharon D Clarke, who is making her Broadway debut – she is in the basement of the White House of the Gellman family in which she works, rocked by a singing washing machine (Arica Jackson), and a trio that represents the radio (Nasia Thomas, Nya, Harper Miles). “Nothing ever happens underground in Louisiana / Because they are not underground in Louisiana. / There is only / under water,” Caroline sings, setting up recurring themes in the musical herself.
This opening sequence is so wacky – the wonderful costumes (and sets) are by Fly Davis – that at first you might think of the dancing objects from Fancy. Maybe it’ll be one of those shows featuring someone with a rich, surreal inner world. But no, Caroline is a stern presence very grounded in reality, determined to ward off hero worship and attempts at friendship from Gellman’s son Noah (Adam Makké), whose father Stuart (John Cariani) plays the clarinet. and not much else.
Noah hates his new stepmom Rose (Caissie Levy), and Caroline doesn’t really like her either, not least because Rose keeps calling her “Carolyn”. Rose wants women to be friends, or at least to have some semblance of friendship. But no, Caroline just wants to wash the family’s clothes and run her basement estate. The musical hints that it’s okay to dislike Rose for no apparent reason other than being superficial and flirtatious, but we soon see that she’s as insecure and questioning as everyone else. Everyone in Caroline, or change is crooked and uncomfortable.
The title of the musical has as much meaning as the basement. Caroline steadfastly resists change, and fishes too come out of Noah’s pockets when it comes to washing his pants, putting his coins in the bleach cup. But Rose, in addition to giving Caroline food for her kids that she doesn’t want (cabbage, yuck), also wants Caroline to take the money herself and likes to spend it on her kids. But Caroline is rock solid in her determination to behave right, stick to boundaries, and do things the way they always were done.
Surrounded by this saga of cowardly change, which ultimately takes Caroline and Noah down parallel dark and destructive paths, the musical incorporates plots of how to tackle racism, the effects of JFK’s death, Jewishness, resistance. and how we can change – and what that changes can be personally and politically elevated. Every now and then the actors slip into the speech, and sometimes the Moon (N’Kenge) shimmers above, another harbinger of change, whether desired or not.
“The show knows how to put together a stunning sequence of sparkling songs and dances, then deliver a punchy dose of cold, hard reality balloons.“
The basement is not only a physical space, but a psychological one. Caroline remains there tenaciously, rooted in the grief of the past and determined to assume what she sees as her responsibilities towards her three children; Noah’s basement is about loss, about dreaming of a time when he can be part of a family. He wants to be someone’s child and brother. Her father is lost in his own grief. Rose wants to be a good mother-in-law, a good employer, to find a purpose or a reason as a wife and mother, but no one wants to seem like they want that from her.
Caroline’s daughter Emmie (the excellent Samantha Williams) wonders why her mother seems so downcast, as does her best friend Dotty (Tamika Lawrence); Emmie wants to fight racism and ends JFK’s heartbreak by saying he hasn’t done enough for black people, though she takes issue with Rose’s father (Chip Zien) over the violence of the resistance . All of this takes place on a Chanukah holiday, where mirth hovers hopelessly above denser politics and more charged emotions. The show knows how to put together a stunning sequence of sparkling songs and dances, then deliver a punchy dose of cold, hard reality balloons.
The collision of musical styles and Kushner’s intelligent and spiritual lyricism makes Caroline, or change a haunting and unforgettable musical. This reviewer liked his ambition, even if it was confusing and opaque at times. Like Angels in America, the material fleshes out the details and the staff – pants, musical instruments, comics, lost coins and banknotes – while proudly being political and showing how politics exerts itself as a force on life people.
Caroline, or change, despite this central and oft-repeated theme of change, doesn’t leave everyone happy and transformed in the end. He cannot and will not. It leaves people soaring in different types of stasis, with a faltering feeling that they will move forward, albeit shaky. If Caroline is determined not to change, she can make it easier for others.
All of the actors are excellent, but this is absolutely Clarke’s show. His act two aria, “Lot’s Wife” – a throaty scream from the head and heart you are unlikely to hear any better this season – is so powerful that it will lodge and vibrate in your bones. . You will also be seated in pure wonder as Clarke gives so much to give it to us.