CAROLINE OR CHANGE
November 6, 2021
It's 1963 and America is reeling from the assassination of JFK while confronting the Civil Rights Movement. Jobs are scarce for women, particularly uneducated women-of-color who become part of the great American domestic corps. They assist the "ladies of the house" and care for the young, but mostly, they are invisible.
Caught in a web of limited opportunities, Caroline Thibodeaux (Sharon D. Clarke) works for a nice Jewish family in the revival of Carolin or Change.
An unlikely heroine, Caroline escapes to the basement with her brand new washing machine, the dryer and most coveted, the radio. Importantly, a little red plastic cup sits in the corner of the hamper where Caroline drops loose change hiding in pants pockets usually belonging to the young son, Noah (Jaden Myles Waldman).
In this realistic musical written by Tony Kushner (author of Angels in America) with music by the amply talented Jeanine Tesori, dark humor somersaults over whimsical events that turn the radio, washer, dryer, bus and moon into living, singing, dancing beings.
Astutely directed by Michael Longhurst, the musical plays against a backdrop of women finding their voices, earning degrees and busting into professional careers generally claimed by men. While politicians aim for the moon, the country reels in horror after the assassination of Kennedy and watches as Martin Luther King tries to heal the nation. But all this radiates as mere headlines behind Caroline's dilemma.
Overworked, exhausted, vexed by a divorce and frustrated by her inability to provide for and manage her 4 children, Caroline is stuck--unable to escape the basement or debt.
However, in that magical refuge Caroline smokes and dreams.
Outdoing the Supremes, the radio materializes into three Black women (Nasia Thomas, NYA, Harper Miles) in sparkling diva gowns and voices to match. The shiny new washing machine generates a sprightly Arica Jackson, and its partner the dryer hums along with Kevin S. McAllister who doubles as the trundling bus that ferries Caroline home and back under the gaze of the lady in the moon (N'Kenge) -- actually, she's the lady in a swing and silver cape by the inventive set and costume designer Fly Davis.
Besides the claustrophobic psychological drama cornering Caroline, the family is also caught in a depressing, emotional trap. Unable to communicate his pain after the death of his young wife, Stuart Gellman (John Cariani) forlornly plays the clarinet for psychic comfort. Resistant to Rose, Noah calls for his father at night, and transfers his love to a begrudging Caroline.
Dour and incessantly pessimistic, Caroline dominates the show with her commanding personality and ringing voice. Totally engrossed by Caroline, Noah is the one person who actually "sees" her and remains convinced she runs his universe.
The 2 and 1/2 hour show sustains a generous pace, animated through 60's style dance routines and vivid staging by choreographer Ann Yee. Musically, the score swings from Klezmer music to R & B, contemporary music and spirituals masterfully played under the baton of the fire red-haired Associate Conductor, Anastasia Victory.
When Broadway tends to favor feel-good musicals bustling with pyrotechnics and nostalgia, Caroline or Change challenges ideas about race, and communications between social classes and generations. A lot is packed inside a musical straddling the mecca of entertainment and our conscience.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis
Photos: EYE ON THE ARTS.Today