Caroline, or Change a musical by Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner (book and lyrics) and composer Jeanine Tesori is not your typical theatrical experience. From its odd, yet obvious title to the personification of a singing washing machine, this show defies categorization and expectations.
Set in November-December 1963, Lake Charles, LA and incorporating the assassination of JFK, the musical centers around Caroline Thibedoux, a stern, humorless maid whose soul has been wounded by a tough life and years of serving other people. Caroline’s days are spent in the basement, at the bus stop, the kitchen of employers and the porch of her modest house. This is the landscape of the musical, every day places and everyday life. The intimacy of the production and lack of big numbers does nothing to diminish Caroline, or Change’s power or ability to compel the audience. In fact it only enhances the impact of the psychological and emotional struggles of its characters. Furthermore the arena, which some might find mundane, doesn’t mean the musical isn’t magical or imaginative.
Caroline is played by the unimprovable Greta Oglesby and rarely have I seen a part fit an actress so seamlessly. Oglesby is a terrific singer and like all great musical theater actresses, she lets us know exactly what she is feeling while she sings. The entire cast is impeccable, so it seems a bit unfair to single anyone else out but the lead, Oglesby. However, I will mention Piper Goodeve as Rose Gellman. She is great. As Caroline’s boss, and step mother to Noah (Seamus Gailor) Rose is often caught in the middle and is constantly thwarted in her attempts at befriending and understanding Caroline and parenting Noah. Sometimes clueless, sometimes confused but always earnest, Rose is a difficult part to pull off. Goodeve nails it. Not only can she sing, but she perfectly embodies the white liberal upper middle class sentiment of the era. She wants to do the right thing, but doesn’t understand by employing Caroline as a maid, she is creating a paradox that undermines her cause. She can’t understand why there has to be a riff between her and Caroline. However this distance is necessary to demonstrate the inequality that has gone on for over a century in the South. If Rose and Caroline were chummy it would feel false. This closeness is what some criticized in The Help.
If this all sounds polemic or didactic, it isn’t. Caroline, or Change is entertaining and emotionally engaging. The score by Tesori, whose credits include much more commercial fare, (Thoroughly Modern Millie and Shrek) is rich and meshes flawlessly with the text, enhancing plot and character development. This is demonstrated brilliantly near the end of the show when Caroline sings about her need to change despite the circumstances. Working like a great monologue with transformative structure and of course expertly performed by Oglesby, this song has great emotional impact and is one of the greatest examples of using song to convey the psychology of character.
Kushner is perhaps our most political playwright and this at times has undermined his ability to build dramatically and impactful theater; not this time. This time, everything works in this fantastic production by Syracuse Stage, smashingly directed by Marcela Lorca .
Hurry now down to Syracuse, Caroline, or Change is only playing through February 26.