‘Caroline, or Change’: A theater review

The Island Now

Review by Elyse Trevers

Watching a revival is often like visiting an old friend. A little awkward at first but soon enough everything becomes familiar again. Yet with “Caroline, or Change” presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company, I felt as if I had never seen it before. Was it so different? Had it not made an impression on me the first time?

Directed by Michael Longhurst, the storyline is the same. Set in 1963 in Louisiana, Tony Kushner’s opera tells the story of Caroline, a long-suffering black maid who works for a Jewish family, the Gellmans. Having recently lost his mother to cancer, young Noah Gellman, seems to find comfort with the brusque black maid who shows him little warmth, except for sharing a cigarette. Yet he adores her, especially when his distracted father remarries and brings his new wife, Rose from New York

Caroline is a single mother who struggles to make ends meet on her $30 weekly salary. Perhaps trying to assuage her liberal guilt, Rose claims that she wants to teach Noah the value of money and tells Caroline she can keep any loose change she finds in Noah’s pockets. At first the maid announces that she can’t take money from a child but realizing how it can buy a few treats for her three children, she takes the coins that Noah, now purposely, leaves in his pockets. The climax of the story occurs when he, inadvertently, leaves his $20 Chanukah gelt in his pockets and Caroline refuses to give it back.

The story is set to the background of the civil rights movements and the assassination of JFK. Yet what was topical years ago feels especially relevant when the statue of a confederate soldier that stood in the town goes missing. Caroline is a woman living in the midst of turbulent times, but circumstances and her own rigidity keep her immutable.

The musical with book and lyrics by Tony Kushner and music by Jeanine Tesori is far from memorable. Except for the song The Bus ( Kevin S. McCallister) sings after the death of JFK, the songs make little impression. Later, Clarke stops the show when she performs “Lot’s Wife.” in which Caroline finally releases all her pent up anger, frustration and disappointment.

The other performances are fine, especially Caissie Levy as Rose and John Cariani, as Noah’s distant father. And then there are the inanimate objects. Caroline works in the basement with The Washer (Arica Jackson) and The Dryer, (Kevin S McAllister) and a trio who portray The Radio (Harper Miles, Nasia Thomas, and Nya .) The clever use of singers as the inanimate objects begins to feel a bit overused after a while, especially the constant presence of The Moon (N’Kenge.) It’s like eating too many sweets-enough already.

Reprising her Olivier-award winning role, Sharon D. Clarke makes an impressive Broadway debut as Caroline. She’s a revelation! Strong and imposing, Clarke has a deep voice that is thrilling. You genuinely care about her, even as she is pushing people away. Despite the wall Caroline builds up around herself, Clarke makes us root for her.

Clarke’s performance is so riveting that it stayed with me long after the show ended. I have little doubt that I’ll definitely remember the show this time,

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