“Caroline, or Change”— book & lyrics by Tony Kushner and music by Jeanine Tesori— is not an easy night in the theater. Despite its focus on two families, its canvas is sprawling. The show is sung throughout. The plot seems thin. A singing moon and talking appliances act like a Greek chorus. Even the title is strange.
And you must see it.
As they did with their 2012 production of “Next to Normal,” the SLOC forces have given us something to chew on, and thanks to the insightful stage direction of Corie Rowe and the musical direction of a thorny score by Michael Lotano, you will be nourished.
In Act II Caroline’s daughter, Emmie (the remarkable Leslie Tucker), says about Caroline, “What’s she got? Only angry.” And why not? It’s late 1963. Caroline Thibodeaux (Barbara N. Howard) is a 39-year-old black maid to a white Jewish family in Louisiana and a divorcee with four children, one of whom is in Vietnam, “wherever that is,” she says. Weekly earnings? Thirty dollars, insufficient to buy food, visit the doctor or treat the kids.
The Gellmans: father Stuart (Rick Reed), his second wife, Rose (Joan Horgan), and Stuart’s 8-year-old son, Noah (Ethan Klein), a boy who misses his dead mother and preoccupied father. Indeed, his chief friend is Caroline, whom he visits in the basement and who is a strong, if occasionally adversarial, figure.
The year is significant. Part way through Act I, The Bus (Brandon Jones, in a brilliant cameo) tells Caroline and her friend Dotty (Samara A. Jiles) that JFK is dead. This event, coupled with Emmie’s burgeoning demands for a life of racial dignity and Mr. Stopnick’s (Joe Phillips) zealous socialist outbursts, remind the audience of the societal changes to come in the 1960s.
But change is difficult for Caroline, who bares her soul in the remarkable “Lot’s Wife,” a cry from the heart. The play’s end provides just a smidgen of hope as the lights come down on the Thibodeaux children — the future.
A thinking-person’s musical: clever, serious (though with amusing moments), rich with symbolism, heartfelt but not sentimental. Look and listen. Consider Rose. Horgan’s earnest and brittle 1950s stepmother reminds us of the changes soon to come for all women: a thrilling performance. Jiles poignantly etches a middle-aged black woman going to college, eager to leave domestic service. Tucker, Josh Powell, and Samaj A. Miller as the Thibodeaux children tear it up on “I Saw Three Ships.” Clarinetist Brian Carucci sails through measures of klezmer, and the five-member band does right by the score’s blues, gospel, and rock elements.
Indeed, kudos to everyone onstage and off.
Finally, the superb Klein and Howard. Young Klein is a performer with stage presence, vocal assurance, and acting chops. Howard’s towering depiction of a tired survivor and a woman on the brink is anchored in a voice that growls, floats, and laments — you can’t take your eyes off her; and the interaction between these two denizens of some circle of hell is deeply moving.
In her director’s note, Rowe says, “It is my hope that you will be some way changed by tonight’s performance.” In many ways, Ms. Rowe, in many ways.