The under-appreciated 2004 Broadway production of Tony Kushner (lyrics and book)/Jeanine Tesori’s (music) Caroline, or Change was a moving exploration of this Black maid relationship’s with the middleclass Jewish family she works for and her own children in 1963 Louisiana. Led by the force-of-nature Tonya Pinkins, the production was directed by the eminent George C. Wolfe who brought to the Eugene O’Neill Theatre a balanced, heartbreaking portrait, all of the characters registering as three-dimensional humans whatever their shortcomings (and there are many).
The current staging at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Studio 54 is over-produced, over-directed (by Michael Longhurst, who piloted the Chichester, Hampstead and London revival) and over-designed, turning the powerful musical into a caricature of itself to the extent that someone in the audience shouted out “anti-Semitic!” during the scene in which the young white son of the family is ranting at the maid over his missing 20 dollar bill.
Perhaps no one can resist gilding the lily even when the flower was perfect to begin with (viz Diane Paulus who turned Hair into a Sixties’ fashion show and Pippin into a Barnum & Bailey circus), but Longhurst’s vision of Caroline, or Change is truly black and white, all the emotions exaggerated, be it the somnambulant behavior of one character and the kvetching of another. The Black characters come off better because they are better written by Kushner.
To be sure, Sharon D Clarke (London’s Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical, 2019) gives a jolting, heartbreaking performance in the title role, but has a coldness that never melts, even in her scenes with her family (until the very end). She roars through her long, heartbreaking solo towards the end bringing the house down.
Better is Samantha Williams as Emmie, Caroline’s daughter, who is the only well-rounded, fully believable character. She stands out. Also solid is Tamika Lawrence as Dotty, Caroline’s friend, another maid who does what she can to help ease Caroline’s dire state of mind.
The awkward, curved tall wall set by Fly Davis hugs, frames and towers over the action, splitting apart to allow entrances and exits. A balcony indicates the apartment of the Gellman family and a staircase descends to the basement (stage level) where a great deal of the action takes place. Some tiny plots of grassy plants on either side of the stage do nothing to evoke Louisiana.
A turntable provides as much movement as Ann Yee’s choreography while Davis’ costumes evoke Las Vegas more than the South: the anthropomorphic Washing Machine (a saucy Arica Jackson) is covered in a white Christmas tree decorated with bubbles; the Moon’s (a deft-voiced soprano, N’Kenge) glitzy folds of shiny white brought to mind the number “The Man in the Moon is a Lady” from Mame while the outfits for the Dryer (Kevin S. McAllister, seductive and smooth-voiced) and the three Radios (Nasia Thomas, Nya and Harper Miles, all slick and sassy) were, to be honest, glitzy, but more appropriate.
All appear to be directed to be stereotypes, none more than the Jewish grandparents (Joy Hermalyn, Stuart Zagnit and the usually reliable Chip Zien). They kvetched, kvelled and kibitzed as if they were performing in an old-fashioned 19th Century Yiddish melodrama leading to the aforementioned outcry.
John Cariani plays Stuart Gellman, a professional clarinetist mourning the death of his first wife, like the walking dead and, though an experienced actor, almost fades away even when bemoaning his dysfunctional relationship to his son Noah. Cariani does, however, appear to be an accomplished clarinetist tooting classical and Yiddish folk tunes.
As his second wife, Rose Stopnick Gellman, Caissie Levy (late of Frozen), the family member who most interfaces with Caroline, plays her as a skittish nervous wreck getting stress from all directions, mostly from the dead wife with whom she cannot compete. As a Northerner, Rose is conflicted in her relationship with Caroline, veering between tolerant benevolence and bossiness coming down uneasily somewhere in between.
Noah (alternated by three young actors) was played at this performance by Adam Makké. He was earnest, appropriately awkward and sang diligently.
The songs are firmly integrated into the plot, including some Sixties pop songs played by the Radio trio. Tesori uses classical music themes as well as period pop, jazz, church hymns and Rodgers and Hammerstein type musical theater melodies. The score is almost of operatic proportions; most of Kushner’s libretto is sung.
Caroline, or Change is an important musical, more now than in 2004. It should be seen. The Roundabout production, though somewhat flawed, still communicates the complicated relationship between Blacks and Jews, clearly an issue in today’s New York City. It is an excellently constructed show, its message surviving mostly intact.
Caroline, or Change (through January 9, 2022)
Roundabout Theatre Company
Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets call 212-719-1300 or visit http://www.roundabouttheatre.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission