In its Canadian premiere, the 1960s-era musical Caroline, or Change is a big, bold, belting delight.
2011 was a year of great change: political uprisings, world-altering deaths, and technological progress all made the world we know today a vastly different place than the one of only a few years ago. And what we learned more than anything is that change is inevitable, and change can be hard.
But the cast and crew of the Canadian premiere of Tony Kushner (writer of Angels in America) and Jeanine Tesori’s musical Caroline, or Change, a co-production between Acting Up Stage Company and Obsidian Theatre on now at the Berkeley Street Theatre, are proving that change can also be good. Very good.
The title character is Caroline Thibodeaux (Arlene Duncan), a black maid and single mother in 1963 Louisiana—another time and place experiencing many forms of change. Against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, the death of JFK, the Vietnam War, and harsher attitudes towards the use of alcohol and tobacco, the Gellman household in which she works is also in a state of flux. Mrs. Gellman passed away from lung cancer, leaving behind a young son Noah (Michael Levinson) and a heartbroken widower (Cameron MacDuffee), now remarried to her best friend Rose (Deborah Hay), who recently moved into the family home from New York City. Unhappy with his companionship above ground, Noah cherishes his time with Caroline in the house’s basement, as she tends to the laundry with The Washing Machine (Londa Larmond), The Dryer (Sterling Jarvis), and The Radio (Neema Bickersteth, Jewelle Blackman, and Alana Hibbert).
Change also comes in a more literal form, as Rose tries to quash Noah’s habit of leaving pocket change in his laundry by allowing Caroline to keep whatever coins she finds. When small change means providing luxuries for her children Emmie (Sabryn Rock), Jackie (Derrick Roberts), and Joe (Kaya Joubert Johnson), this simple act of parenting raises much more significant implications for Caroline’s relationship with Noah, her inner demons, and the world around her.
The script is a lofty one, incorporating death, politics, race, anti-Semitism, alcoholism, and spousal abuse together in operatic style. Most of the drama lies in the context of the story, and not within the characters themselves. It’s almost an autobiographical story: Kushner uses his own childhood in the 1960s as his inspiration, though laced with insights he’s gained since, which results in the odd circumstance of the young characters being more developed than the adults.
Yet it’s the performances that really take control of this production. Director Robert McQueen and Music Director Reza Jacobs masterfully handle the large ensemble and get the best out of everyone, specifically Duncan, Hay, and young Levinson. The entire cast delivers belt after belt of stunning vocal gymnastics with devastating lyrics. But really, they could be singing their bank statements and our jaws would still drop.
Also impressive is Michael Gianfrancesco’s set and Kimberley Purtell’s lighting, which turns the stage into tiers—the basement, bus stop, and Caroline’s home on the bottom level, the Gellman’s home in the middle, and the high balcony in which The Moon can watch over the unrest below (more changes there, “the tides of change” from day to night).
During its run on Broadway, Caroline, or Change never really got its time in the spotlight. And as Caroline herself says, “Nothing ever happens underground in Louisiana” (or, in New York). Luckily, this production brings its wonderful cast to the surface.