The In-Person Experience: Broadway’s Caroline, or Change
A musical about a woman who talks to the washing machine, and it sings back. Who’da thought, right? And it’s not some Disney’s Beauty and the Beast spin-off. It’s serious stuff, here. Yet, “nothing happens in Louisiana on the radio“, except here in the Roundabout Theatre Company‘s emotionally packed revival of Caroline, or Change. And all I can say is thank god it has made it over here. I saw it many years ago, maybe at the Public, where it opened on November 30, 2003, or maybe when it transferred to Broadway’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre on May 2, 2004 – I’m not quite sure – but this complex masterpiece has certainly stayed with me. Not because of a song or a melody. Definitely not because of a dance number or an infectious score. It has more to do with the way it hit, and stuck to me, emotionally, almost physically, like the Louisiana heat and humidity. It dampened our skin, and left its wet scent within the fabric of our clothes. It’s joyous and sad, angry and tense, and it made us feel something subtle but every so strong.
Back in the day, I could not have told you what it was all about, especially when I sat down last week at Studio 54. I remembered the abstractions and the personifications of simple household machines in a powerful objectification. It hit hard when it opened in New York City in 2003, starring the powerful Tonya Pinkins in the title role. Directed by the legendary George C. Wolfe, the musical, with book and lyrics by Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and music by Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home), had a short run, but was extremely well received, nominated for six Tony Awards, including Best Musical and won one for Anika Noni Rose who played Emmie Thibodeaux. I still have visions, albeit not clear ones, of that washing machine coming to life, and my body tells me I felt their power.
The revival production at the Roundabout was set to open in 2020, and I’m sure I don’t need to explain much else. I had thought about seeing this same production of Caroline, or Change when I was in London in 2019, but I already knew it was transferring, and now I can see why. The production, starring the formidable Sharon D. Clarke (West End’s Death of a Salesman) in the titular role, is a triumph in song and spirit. Directed by the British stage director Michael Longhurst (Broadway/West End’s Constellations) with stellar choreographing by Ann Yee (Broadway’s Sunday in the Park…), the piece stomps and shimmies its way forward, never giving in to the big easy, but also never failing to connect and entertain. It is a historic ode, formulated by Kushner to resurrect his own upbringing memories back in Louisiana in the 1960s. It’s complicated and intuitive, breathing history and racial tension together, giving it life inside the home of a young child in a well-off Jewish household, who apparently, was drawn to the hired maid responsible for doing the laundry deep down in the basement.
To see the strong cold Caroline, powerfully embodied by Clarke standing down in the basement working hard for little pay, the scenario, with her employer and their family standing up high and far in the back, places the complicated idea of racial prejudice and white entitlement out front and center. The only one who enters the basement with any curiosity is the family’s son, Noah, portrayed beautifully [in the performance I attended] by the young Adam Makké [alternatively played by Gabriel Amoroso (BAM’s Medea) or Jaden Myles Waldman (Amazon’s “…Mrs. Maisel“)]. He’s inately drawn to her, for her strength and stoic-ness, as he personally struggles to comprehend and deal with the death of his mother, and the intense awkwardness he’s experiencing with his new step-mother, Rose Stopnick Gellman. Dynamically played by the ever-surprising Caissie Levy (Broadway’s Frozen), their engagement registers, pulling us in a myriad of different directions, all unique and well calculated by Levy and the writers. It’s tight and uncomfortable, all with no help from the distracted and distant father, Stuart Gellman, well played by John Cariani (Broadway’s The Band’s Visit). He can’t seem to help himself, as he stands awkwardly and shyly to the side, with clarinet in hand, looking sadly at his son, but can’t seem to find the courage to span the wide gulf that exists between them. It’s literally big enough to drive a bus through.
Caroline, downstairs, toils hard, and battles the demons of her past, embodied in the masculine sailor-form of a deep-voiced dryer, portrayed with depth by Kevin S. McAllister (Ford Theatre’s Ragtime). She holds her trauma in a hard-fisted knot of pain and ache that hangs on every limb. She’s a single working mother, raging against the world at the bus stop with her modernized friend and fellow maid, Dotty, ferociously portrayed by the wonderful Tamika Lawrence (Broadway’s If/Then), and battling at home with her three children; Emmie, Jackie and Joe Thibodeaux, strongly played here by Samantha Williams (Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen), Alexander Bello (Broadway’s The Rose Tattoo), and Jayden Theophile (Broadway’s Tina) [both male parts alternatively played by Richard Alexander Phillips (FX’s “Pose“)]. The love and care fly forward from her stern hard gaze, while her exhausted frame galvanizes her heart and transfixs our gaze as we intuitively lean in to protect.
The show electrically shifts into high gear when Noah’s stepmother Rose decides to teach the boy a lesson, while casually unearthing her own blind liberal patronizing superiority of Caroline and her intrinsic value to the world. We automatically feel the discomfort and anger percolating in the heated moments within the discussion of the value of money – of a boy’s loose change, and what it might mean to a black maid in 1960s America. All Caroline wants is to be seen and valued, with a living wage and a breath of fresh air, far from the heat-inducing Washing Machine, gorgeously portrayed with exquisite bubbles by Arica Jackson (Broadway’s Head Over Heels), and the always interrupting, informing, exciting Radio, beautifully brought to life by a trio of dynamic performers; Nya, Nasia Thomas (Broadway’s Ain’t Too Proud), and Harper Miles (Bat Out of Hell).
Assisted powerfully by the talented musical supervisor, Nigel Lilley (Chishester’s South Pacific) and music director/Orchestrator, Joseph Joubert (Broadway’s The Color Purple), the rising fraught temperatures from within play out hard and intense under the watchful eye of the gorgeously voiced Moon, elegantly portrayed by the luminescent N’Kenge (Broadway’s Motown). The unfairness of the basement where Caroline sweats and labors in is where her journey forward must emit from. There is a shift, dramatic and powerful, that takes over the stage. It pulls the light away from the Jewish family, including the Gellman’s Grandma and Grandpa, portrayed by Joy Hermalyn (Baz Luhrmann’s La Bohème) and Stuart Zagnit (Broadway’s Newsies), as well as Rose’s NYC father, Mr. Stopnick, intensely portrayed by the always engaging Chip Zien (Broadway’s Into The Woods), and shines it strongly on Clarke, as she expertly navigates the cathartic route forward. It’s a must-see moment, and a thrilling climb upwards into the proverbial sky.
On a clunky, overly-metaphoric set, with grand potent costumes, both designed by Fly Davis (West End’s The Ocean at the End…), under strong lighting by Jack Knowles (National’s Beginning) and a rainy, distracting sound design by Paul Arditti (Broadway’s The Inheritance); the traditional arc of a musical doesn’t appear to be present or as neatly structured as the emotional layers it finds inside Caroline. The fiery formulations of inequality breath out as powerfully as the radio and the washing machine sing strongly. The edge is sharp and meaningful, constructing and laying down heavy ideas based on historical disturbances in the racist structure and history of Louisiana. Its power sneaks in and heats your soul, and you’ll never look at a radio or a washing machine in the same way again. Trust me on that one.