Sharon D. Clarke in Caroline, or Change, at Studio 54.
Photo: Joan Marcus
Before it comes to the overwhelming power of rebirth of Caroline, or Change, contender for the greatest musical play of the century… before arriving at the performance of Sharon D. Clarke, who dissects the ceiling of Studio 54 with her voice… before I reach perfection, even prescience, from the appearance of this particular show here in the chilling fall of 2021, I want to ask something important: why the hell is there a comma in the middle of this title?
Even without it, the title of the 2003 musical by Tony Kushner and composer Jeanine Tesori which is secretly an opera already plays puns. In the plot, 8-year-old Noah Gellman swings between affection for his family’s maid, Caroline, and her real pocket change, while Caroline Thibodeaux herself is on the verge of change as a transformation. , influenced by the forces at work in 1963. Lake Charles, Louisiana. The word game title therefore prepares us for an evening full of dualities, indecision and choice. But Kushner could have accomplished all of this without punctuation.
So I think his comma does (at least) three things. It recalls titles from another time, old double barreled names like Twelfth Night, or whatever you like. It divides the title exactly into two groups of eight letters, with the comma line acting as a bar on a metric scale. And third, the comma makes you – literally – pause. These are also the three gestures of the musical itself. In his nauseating quasi-nostalgia, Caroline, or Change look back, both on Kushner’s childhood and on our country’s adolescence. This weighs, with care and respect, the heaviest moment of a life. And that stops us: he puts a restrictive hand on our arm as we rush. The break is always sacred in Kushner’s work because a break is a space for reflection. Tellingly, much of his libretto happens at opening hours, like at a moonlit bus stop or during a day’s cigarette (her smoke curls up like a comma), smoked while Caroline waits for the laundry to dry. These are precisely the places where a person can take the time to stop and think, just as this musical – however grand and thrilling and packed with beautiful music – gives us the space to do the same.
“Nothing ever happens underground in Louisiana / Because there is no underground in Louisiana. There is only under water,” sings Caroline (Clarke) in the Gellmans’ basement , but so do the washing machine personified (Arica Jackson), the menacing dryer (Kevin S. McCallister) and the radio, played by a tightly harmonizing trio (Nasia Thomas, Nya and Harper Miles). (In everything that serves them – even the machines – is black.) During those first few minutes, Tesori’s music scrolls across the dial, from the delicious pastiche of Motown to a modern opera with sour notes by David Lang-ian … Throughout the almost sung piece, Tesori’s compositional scope is incredible: the score will soften for the opera Moon (N’Kenge), then thicken and turn blue for Caroline, then become all gleeful and klezmer when grandparents Gellman (Stuart Zagnit and Joy Hermalyn) show up for Hanukkah. The more complex part of the series, people operating in totally different musical modes (and often with emotional, racial and generational conflicts) sing, and the genres, at least, intertwine.
Noah likes to join Caroline in the middle of the household appliances, even if she does not encourage him much. She’s cranky with him, but he worships her. Noah – his late mother, a new mother-in-law, Rose (Caissie Levy), trying to take his place – clearly wishes Caroline could rule over him only and absolutely. (Three actors alternate in the role of Noah. I saw Adam Makké.) Her father, Stuart (John Cariani), doesn’t always remember the age of his own child, while Caroline always has his children in mind. , wondering how to stretch her $ 30 a week to care for her teenage daughter, Emmie (Samantha Williams), and little ones Jackie and Joe. One day, feeling uncomfortable with money, Rose decides to discipline Noah for his habit of leaving change in his pockets by telling Caroline that she can keep whatever she finds in the laundry. “It will be like a raise! Since Noah pays part of your salary, ”she tweets suspiciously. When Rose’s father visits him, he immediately notices that she accidentally dug a wedge between Noah and Caroline, whose humiliation, need, and rage add up, as do the quarters in the mug on the washing machine.
Michael Longhurst’s production has traveled far to get here. A smash hit in 2017 at the Minerva in Chichester led to a run in London’s West End, and this (mostly redesigned) show and its star, Clarke, now arrive at the roundabout. All of the performers here are superbly married to their material, matching strengths to strengths but also – and most moving – flaws to flaws. N’Kenge’s voice as Moon is soaring, pure, effortless, beautiful. Cariani looks tense when he sings for Noah but passionate and free when he plays his beloved clarinet. (Cariani actually plays the clarinet, doesn’t pretend.) Tamika Lawrence, playing Caroline Dotty’s friend, and Williams both have trumpet-like voices, as clear and free as the optimism of their characters. But Clarke’s voice seems to be pulled out of her almost against her will. You can hear weariness as it grows; we hear gravel and blood.
When the original American production of Caroline, or Change came to audiences on Broadway in 2004, was highly regarded by critics but had no financial success. Maybe the city is ready for it now. It certainly seems so exactly right at this point that I continued to check the script. Had they changed it? No, Caroline Still contained the image of an overturned and beheaded Confederate memorial, a statue of Johnny Reb turning bilious copper green in the humid Louisiana air. Longhurst and decorator Fly Davis make sure this statue is the first thing we see – it takes center stage when the audience sits down, then disappears when the musical begins. The UK production does a poor job of conjuring up the Louisiana heat (the dark turntable set looks oddly cold), but it does a great job of reminding us what kinds of bad guys are still standing in the tall grass. Returning from intermission, we briefly see the remains of the mutilated statue. Like its lost cause, it is ruined and shattered – but not gone.
In Caroline, Kushner wanted to write about the strained interactions of Jewishness in the South: Rose’s father and the older Gellmans certainly disagree on what “the Negro” should do to uplift his lot. “Anguishing! Anguishing!” the Gellmans sing, hilariously, when Rose’s dad begins a table quirk over giving up nonviolence. Kushner also discussed the slowness with which transformations in the civil rights movement seeped into the Louisiana water table. What her two dramatic situations have in common is stasis: the reluctance of unwilling white liberals to act, the shocked inertia of a black woman trying to move freely after a life of restriction. The show’s highlight is the scorching tune “Lot’s Wife”, in which Caroline recognizes her own inability to let go of her past, her anger, her job, or her acquiescence to her white employers.
Eighteen years ago, the musical had a little more… hope in it. As Kushner noted, the story has always been Caroline’s tragedy, but in 2003 it used Emmie and Jackie and even Noah to point out the possibilities of the non-tragic to come. The musical always ends the same, but in the audience, we I know the United States continues to display its own immobility, its own stubborn resistance to change. Longhurst’s production is therefore brave enough not to cheer up, not even on recall. The libretto for a while claimed that there is some sort of oblique equivalence between grieving Noah and exhausted Caroline, but in “Lot’s Wife,” the series admitted what heartache is unrecoverable grief. “I’m going to slam this iron on my heart,” Caroline shouts. “I’m going to slam this iron on my throat, I’m going to slam this iron on my cock.” The sound in the room becomes huge and unbearable as a woman gives up on her future, releasing energy like a tearing atom. The spectacle cannot recover from this intensity; certainly we cannot. No matter what comes after “Lot’s Wife”, no matter what little notes of grace the production gives Emmie and Noah, we get stuck in the nuclear blast of this song.
Caroline, or Change is at the Studio 54 roundabout until January 9.