Caroline, Or Change is smart, dramatic and emotionally stirring

CAROLINE, OR CHANGE by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori (Musical Stage Company/Obsidian). At the Winter Garden Theatre (189 Yonge). Runs to February 16. $39-$129. 416-872-1212. See listing. Rating: NNNN

Anyone who thinks musicals are light and frothy needs to see Caroline, Or Change, a show that tackles race relations in the civil rights era with lots of musical and dramatic complexity. 

Caroline Thibodeaux (Jully Black) is a 39-year-old Black divorcée and mother of four who works as a maid for the Gellmans, a progressive, middle-class Jewish family living in 1960s Louisiana. 

Distant father Stuart (Damien Atkins), nervous stepmom Rose (Deborah Hay) and eight-year-old Noah (Evan Lefeuvre) are barely holding it together, still recovering from the death of Stuart’s wife (and Noah’s mother), who was also New Yorker Rose’s best friend. 

The precocious Noah spends lots of time watching Caroline do the laundry in their stifling basement, feeling special because she lets him light up (but not inhale) her single daily cigarette. 

The musical’s plot turns on a situation involving loose change that Noah absentmindedly leaves in his pockets. Wanting to instill in him some sense of responsibility, Rose decides to let Caroline, who gets paid $30 a week, keep whatever money she finds in the laundry. 

But composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist/book writer Tony Kushner are less concerned with plot than they are with character. 

I should point out that the characters include, besides members of the Gellman and Thibodeaux families, some inanimate ones as well. Perhaps to suggest Caroline’s loneliness and isolation, Tesori and Kushner have anthropomorphized the washing machine, dryer and radio – her daily companions down in the basement. 

And in a device that adds a bit of metaphysical grandeur, even the moon is evoked by the regal and elegant soprano Measha Brueggersgosman

Sometimes these additions, especially that moon, can seem twee and precious. But because Caroline is such a contained, emotionally shut down person for much of the show, they suggest something of her inner life and imagination that she doesn’t reveal to anyone else. 

Tesori’s score is a marvel, blending everything from R&B, gospel, classical and Jewish harmonies to evoke the eclectic characters. Kushner’s book and lyrics are just as effective, especially when showing various aspects of class struggle, including condescending white privilege. Sometimes, however, his rhymes can seem a tad too cute. 

Robert McQueen’s production brings this ambitious work together nicely, Michael Gianfrancesco’s set suggesting the various levels of the Gellman home well (unfortunately, the Winter Garden’s sightlines mean the basement isn’t clearly visible). Kimberly Purtell’s lighting beautifully singles out moments and moods.

R&B star Black, in her musical theatre debut, has a striking presence that’s felt even in the few scenes when she’s not onstage. While she could modulate her emotional range more in the first act, her big second act number, when Caroline unleashes all her pent-up anger and pain, is astonishing. 

Hay is equally impressive as the neurotic, well-intentioned Rose. And Vanessa Sears soars as Emmie, Caroline’s headstrong daughter whose prospects are much brighter than her mom’s – that “change” in the title has special resonance for her.

Reza Jacobs’s musical direction is assured, although the ensemble numbers often lack clarity. 

But this is a first-rate production of a major musical that is as insightful and dramatic as it is emotionally involving. 


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