L&S America Online   Subscribe
Home Lighting Sound AmericaIndustry NewsLSA DirectoryEventsContacts

-Today's News

-Last 7 Days

-Business News + Industry Support

-People News

-Product News

-Theatre in Review

-Subscribe to News

-Subscribe to LSA Mag

-News Archive

-Media Kit

-A Theatre Project Book

-PLASA Events

Theatre in Review: Caroline, Or Change (Roundabout Theatre Company/Studio 54)

Caissie Levy, Sharon D. Clarke. Photo: Joan Marcus

It has taken seemingly forever for Sharon D. Clarke to reach our stages, but it was worth the wait. A mainstay of the West End and a winner of multiple Olivier Awards (including one for this production), she is every inch the emotionally frozen title character of Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori's musical, Caroline, or Change. Indeed, she is the chief reason for seeing it. A Black, fortyish divorcée, Caroline Thibodeaux works as a maid, struggling to keep her three kids fed and clothed on $30 a week. (Even in 1963 money, it's a pittance). Disappointed in love, bereft of options, she toils in her employer's basement, stifling with the Louisiana heat, expecting nothing but a few quiet moments at day's end.

Clarke's Caroline is as silent as a monument, ritually polite when she must be and tough as nails otherwise. Turning to Noah Gellman, the eight-year-old boy of the household where she works, she says, "Light me," cuing him in their daily ritual, in which he preps her cigarette; that's it for warmth. Her deep religious faith has an Old Testament edge, to Noah, whose mother died from cancer, she says, "God sometimes eat people, like a wolf," she says. "He make this whole world as a test."

Trudging through her daily tasks, Caroline has no time for nonsense like friendship or laughter. Clarke is, like all great actors, unafraid of alienating the audience in pursuit of her character's truth, whether giving her sassy daughter a slap in the face or, when provoked by Noah, telling him that as a Jew he is condemned to hellfire. And when she finally opens up in the eleven o'clock number "Lot's Wife," it is the shattering revelation of a life shaped by the corrosive effects of racism, poverty, and the absence of love. Caroline has shut the door on hope, focusing only on getting through each day. Clarke -- her face unreadable, her posture erect, her gait deliberate -- is an authoritative presence with a soul-piercing voice; it's great to have her around.

There are many other talented people onstage at Studio 54. First among them is Caissie Levy as Rose, a New Yorker who has married Noah's widowed father Stuart (John Cariani, displaying impressive chops on the clarinet) only to find herself lost in a house of grief. Rose clumsily tries to paper over the family's all-too-apparent sorrow, reaching out awkwardly to Noah (Adam Makké at the performance I attended) and clumsily trying to befriend Caroline, who is having none of it. Levy, desperately cheerful, ill at ease, and wracked with embarrassment at having an underpaid Black servant, makes a fine counterpoint to Clarke's impassive Caroline. Newcomer Samantha Williams impresses as Emmie, Caroline's strong-willed daughter, who is avid for a better life and furious at her mother's passivity. And Chip Zien adds some much-needed humor as Rose's father, a socialist hat seller with no filter when it comes to airing his controversial political opinions; it is his Hanukkah gift to Noah that precipitates the play's main crisis.

That crisis takes some time to arrive at. Rose, trying to gain a motherly hold over the resentful Noah, disciplines him for leaving money in the pants he deposits in the laundry basket. When he continues to disobey, she announces that any stray coins will be confiscated and kept by Caroline. It's a move designed to establish Rose's place in the household and ease her guilt over Caroline's meager wages. But it's also an unconscious act of condescension that forces Caroline into an unwilling intimacy with the family. Then again, Caroline can use the extra cash -- the rent is overdue, a son needs dental work, and Christmas is coming. It's an uncomfortable situation, packed with unspoken feelings, and sooner or later it will explode.

It's also a relatively small incident, perfect for a one-act play but rather noticeably overextended as the center of a two-act musical. Kushner and Tesori have challenged themselves with dramatizing the story of a woman who, having bitterly accepted her lot, cannot engage with a world in constant motion. And yet change is everywhere: Noah, Rose, and Stuart struggle with grief, groping for a way forward together. Dotty, Caroline's sort-of friend, is taking night classes, seeking to educate herself; she is also actively dating. And in the background the world is in upheaval: John F. Kennedy has been assassinated. The Civil Rights movement is spreading through the South. And somebody has stolen a Confederate statue from the town square, an unthinkable act for the era and one in which someone close to Caroline is involved.

Much of the dawdling happens in the first act. A great deal of time is spent evoking Caroline's inner life via a series of magic-realist devices in which actors portray inanimate objects, such as a washer, a dryer, and a city bus. Whether you find this imaginative and theatrical or an overly calculated act of naivete will probably determine whether you enjoy Caroline, or Change. I fall into the latter camp, although the trio of Nasia Thomas, Nya, and Harper Miles, as the flamboyant voices on Caroline's radio, stop the second act with the number "Salty Teardrops." N'Kenge, decked in glitter and floating over the stage seated in a plastic orb, makes a most musical Moon, even if her staging oddly put me in mind of Angela Lansbury in Mame The first-act closer, the excessively cute "Roosevelt Petrucius Coleslaw," provides an unnecessarily lengthy showcase for Caroline's children.

Most of the time, Michael Longhurst's direction fluidly takes us in and out of Caroline's head, although some of the design choices are odd. Fly Davis' two-level set effectively establishes the basement where much of the action unfolds, but it often maroons the principals on an upstage cliff. At one point, Levy uses a phone cord the length of a football field so she can get downstage center for an important call. Davis' imaginative costumes for the washer, dryer, etc. have a children's theatre quality to them; this is not a production that needs additional whimsicality. Jack Knowles' lighting nimbly contrasts fantasy with reality. Paul Arditti's sound design offers pretty solid clarity along with a variety of ambient effects (frogs, barking dogs, rushing water)

Caroline, or Change has often been acclaimed -- for its powerful central characterization and for a score that melds the blues, klezmer, soul, and '60s pop sounds to powerful effect -- but it is a singular, indeed eccentric, piece that is not for all tastes. See it for Clarke; who knows when she will come our way again? --David Barbour

(4 November 2021)

E-mail this story to a friendE-mail this story to a friend

LSA Goes Digital - Check It Out!

  Follow us on Twitter  Follow us on Facebook