Broadway Review: 'Caroline, or Change'

by Ryan Leeds

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday November 4, 2021

The company of "Caroline, or Change."
The company of "Caroline, or Change."  (Source:Joan Marcus)

Thirty dollars just can't cut it. Not for Caroline Thibodeaux, a Black housekeeper who tends chores and carries the weight of the world on her shoulders in "Caroline, or Change". Roundabout Theater Company's revival of Tony Kushner (book and lyricist) and Jeanine Tesori's (composer) 2003 musical is currently on stage at Studio 54 in a generally favorable production. This version transferred from London's West End.

It's not been an easy life for Caroline (Sharon D Clarke), who works for the Gellman family in an oppressively hot basement in 1960s Louisiana. But, with a divorce from an abusive husband, three kids to raise on her own, a wish for better education and other unfulfilled dreams, how could contentment be possible? Especially when her weekly salary is today's equivalent of approximately $270.

But some loose coins set the plot in motion. Noah's (a role shared between three young actors: Gabriel Amosoro, Adam Makké, Jaden Myles Waldman) knack for leaving coins in his pants pockets prompts his step-mom, Rose (Caissie Levy), to confront Caroline about the habit. "I don't want to take pennies from a baby," she tells Rose. Over time, however, Caroline seizes the opportunity, and with every wash, she gives herself a slight financial boost. Ultimately, it still doesn't bring happiness.

Sharon D Clarke
Sharon D Clarke  (Source: Joan Marcus)

"Other people's maids are so much nicer... lady, smile already," Rose shares as an aside. Rose just doesn't understand. Or rather, she does and just chooses blissful ignorance over caring towards Caroline. That much is obvious in how she constantly mispronounces her name as Carolyn and complains more about her own mundane problems.

Rose's musician husband, Stuart (John Cariani), is no model of joy, either. He's lost his wife (and Rose's best friend) to cancer and spends his days glued to his clarinet as though it were a security blanket. With his grief has come detachment from his forlorn son, Noah, and an overall sense of melancholy.

Frankly, no one in this house is having fun.

Perhaps that's why the show's creators decided to bring a bit of levity to the plot with a singing washing machine (Arica Jackson), moon (N'Kenge), dryer/bus (Kevin S. McAllister), and a radio trio (Nasia Thomas, Nya, Harper Miles). At first blush, they seem cartoonish, but they serve a deeper significance. During the show's original run, Tesori explained that these inanimate objects encompass most everything Caroline has in her life. Here, costume and set designer Fly Davis has created an economical yet imaginative wardrobe for her articles. Combined with this talent, it gives us some occasional smiles.

There was much critical praise, both then and now, showered upon "Caroline, or Change" for Tesori's score (who won a 2015 Tony Award for "Fun Home.") Although it does offer a variety of genres, performed by director Michael Longhurst's vocally sound cast, there is little here that is musically memorable aside from the radio trio's tight harmonies. At times, the mostly sung musical starts to feel a tad tedious. Clarke's carefully rendered, Oliver Award-winning performance, however, is undeniably flawless.

Kushner, who has claimed that the story is somewhat autobiographical, has unloaded a multitude of themes: White privilege, wealth inequality, monument controversy, mental health, and civil rights are all explored with care and insight. This type of theater may not bring immediate emotion, but you'll think about it for a long time afterward.

At its core, "Caroline, or Change" is about genuine, human empathy and the acknowledgment of the age-old wisdom: "Be Kind. For everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." If ever our society needed that reminder, now is the ideal time.

"Caroline, or Change"
Studio 54
254 West 54th Street, NYC
Through January 9, 2022

Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater, food, and nightlife journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine and The Broadway Blog. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.