Syracuse Stage’s Caroline, or Change offers a unique musical perspective on 1960s-era civil rights
Tony Kushner in the magical realism of Angels in America established himself as the leading playwright of the 1990s (excluding August Wilson, who emerged the decade before). In Angels countless themes of American history swirl around the victims of the AIDS plague. In his magical realist musical, Caroline, or Change, now at Syracuse Stage, he is no less ambitious. Building on a childhood memory of an African-American laundress in Lake Charles, La., circa 1963, Kushner portrays the unhappiness of a single woman with cosmic resonance. Even the Moon sings to her. And the show’s ambiguous title comes with a three-way pun: Caroline or Change. It could signal a choice between Caroline and change.
The program for this show cites 46 musical numbers, almost evenly divided between the two acts, but it will strike some audiences as a departure from what they expect from Broadway. It could be called a chamber opera with accessible music. All of the dialogue is sung in rhyming couplets, and elsewhere the score embraces a wealth of idioms. Composer Jeanine Tesori is constantly changing the tempo, more than your humble reviewer could record, but at least she has African drumming, Motown, gospel, spirituals, rhythm’n’blues, playground songs, Christmas and Hanukkah songs, klezmer and even an extended quotation from Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto.
It is not Broadway in deeper ways as well. Not only is there no love story and no pat happy ending, there are no heart-swelling paeans of resolution, uplift or celebration. Caroline, like its title character, is never ingratiating, never begs to be loved. And therein lies its bracing honesty and its unique power.
The Gellman household in Lake Charles is an upstairs (an upper middle-class Jewish family with some issues) and downstairs (Caroline the maid, usually in the basement) arrangement. William Bloodgood’s set thrusts the downstairs forward, but we can always see everyone and quickly perceive their relationship to one another. Director-choreographer Marcela Lorca had previously staged the much-admired Caroline in the Twin Cities’ Guthrie Theater. Linking the two worlds is the Gellman boy Noah (the astounding Seamus Gailor), 8 years old. (Kushner, born in 1956, would have been 7 during the second half of 1963.) Noah’s father Stuart Gellman (Price Waldman) grieves the loss of his first wife from cancer and is more concerned with clumsy attempts to practice his clarinet than getting on with his life.
More tension is generated by Stuart’s second wife, Rose (Piper Goodeve), who is well-meaning but suffers a fatal talent for saying the wrong thing. Hoping to teach the boy lessons in fiscal responsibility, she tells the boy to retrieve the coins, quarters or even pennies that he has been leaving in his pockets so that Caroline can “find” them. Seems like a small thing in itself, like Desdemona’s missing handkerchief or a gentleman caller with another appointment, but this act of patronizing generosity sets all the action in motion. It also contributes to the multi-level pun in the title.
Caroline (Greta Oglesby) mostly works. Although she shares the taboo pleasures of cigarettes with Noah, she resists being his pal. She will not be confused with Ethel Waters in The Member of the Wedding. With a rich imagination, she is never alone, as she has for company such appliances as the charming Washing Machine (Danielle K. Thomas) and the rascally Dryer (Doug Eskew). She can listen to The Radio, embodied by a Supremes-like trio (Caitlainne Rose Gurreri, Christina Acosta Robinson and Gabrielle Porter), and wonderfully choreographed by Lorca. Beyond that she takes comfort from the Moon (Emily Jenda), who passes across a night sky evoking a dreamscape by Maxfield Parrish. While Oglesby in the title role is the vocal powerhouse of the show, for reasons soon to be cited, the gorgeousness of Jenda’s delivery visibly lifts the audience out of its seats.
Caroline, earning only $30 a week, could make use of the pittances left in Noah’s pockets as she has to support three children, two small boys, Joe (Malachi Emmanuel) and Jackie (Levonn L. Owens), as well as a bright, ambitious daughter, Emmie (Stephanie Umoh), who sees a brighter life for herself than wage slavery in the basement. Caroline’s sole human confidant is the snappy and ambitious Dotty (Regina Marie Williams), who is taking advantage of night school to better herself.
Caroline is linked to the enormous transformation around her through Emmie and Dotty, both of whom are moved by the dominating figures of the year, Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. In one of director Lorca’s most movingly staged scenes, news of the Kennedy assassination arrives via the anthropomorphic Bus, with Doug Eskew supplying an ominous voice.
We get quite a different view of these events in the Gellman household with the arrival of Rose’s father Mr. Stopnick (Larry Block), an unreconstructed 1930s radical from New York City, who could easily have been a character in Marc Blitzstein’s Cradle Will Rock. He calls for action against oppressors and sings that peaceful passive resistance could land you in the death camps. He is generous to Noah, however, and gives him a $20 bill. In a plot with relatively little action, the gift provokes a thunderclap of emotion: Is it too much to leave for Caroline?
Skipping over several developments, we find Caroline in her final scene, “the queen-of-keep-at-bay,” as she says of herself. After a prayer to God, she resists the pride that would grant her change from her grinding quotidian. In her last big number, “Lot’s Wife,” accompanied by Dotty, she pours out her heart in an astounding, penetrating recognition of where she is. It would be tempting to call the number unprecedented because we’re not used to this kind of feeling at the end, but in the history of the musical she is anticipated by “Rose’s Turn” in Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim’s Gypsy.
Caroline, or Change is accurately described as “critically acclaimed,” which is another way of saying it has been a bigger hit with critics than audiences. It was nominated for six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and won the Olivier in London, where it appeared in the National Theatre rather then in a commercial house. Its first off-Broadway run lasted two months, and on Broadway it reached 139 performances in 2004. With an eclectic post-modern score that has no single hit like a “Tomorrow” or a “Send in the Clowns,” and a story that refuses to pander, that could come with the territory. Or it could be that Broadway audiences, feeling robbed by sky-high admissions, need a mainline fix and don’t have the stomach for subtlety found in audiences in a top-performing regional theater in an upstate university town
More than any show this season, Caroline is a pull-out-the-stops production, with Christopher Drobny’s many-hued musical direction, Candice Donnelly’s character-defining costumes, and many strong people in supporting roles, starting with Doug Eskew as the Dryer and Bus, Stephanie Umoh as Emmie and Piper Goodeve as Rose. No matter what they charge, you’ll never see a greater Caroline, or Change.
This production runs through Feb. 26. See Times Table for information.