Caroline, or Change
Most theater goers know playwright Tony Kushner for his massively influential Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning, two-evening dramatic epic Angels in America. Few might realize that this urbane, bi-coastal, gay, Jewish author was raised in the unlikely backwater of Lake Charles, Louisiana. It is the source of his autobiographical work, Caroline, or Change, turned into a musical by award winning composer Jeanine Tesori.
The musical had a modest run on Broadway and won the Olivier Award in London for Best Musical. It has been revived regionally many times, and Ray of Light Theatre’s admirable production with fine production values and performances shows the piece in good light. Yet, for its success, Caroline, or Change misses a place in the top tier. Perhaps as a domestic drama (in more ways than one), its stakes are too low. Or perhaps the central character doesn’t evoke sufficient sympathy to elicit emotional involvement.
Caroline is a black maid, working in the home of a Jewish family. Even if she is distant, you do want her to succeed. She is a single parent of three children, abandoned by an abusive husband, and she appears to love and support her children to the best of her ability. Unfortunately, her bitterness about her station in life extends beyond the causes of her grief and poverty to those who reach out to her, including the Kushner proxy, 12-year-old Noah, and his stepmother Rose.
Jasmyne Brice is remarkable in both acting and singing as the usually grim Caroline, whose subtle gestures and looks speak volumes. She does relent occasionally in some of her songs and some of her interactions with Noah, especially when he visits her in the basement to light and drag (but is not allowed to inhale!) Caroline’s one cigarette of the day. Her exquisite singing reaches its apex vocally and emotionally near the end with the self-explanatory “Don’t let my sorrow make evil out of me” and “Lot’s wife,” in which she sees her own shortcomings and sees the need for change.
The title itself is curious syntactically with the comma and the “or.” One change is the personal change that Noah is going through becoming a teen, though more broadly and importantly, change is sweeping through society. It is 1963, and President Kennedy is assassinated. As a song title from the following year would suggest, “The Times, They are a-Changin’.” Indeed, Caroline’s daughter Emmie embodies the change in a new generation of African-Americans who reject the social contract their parents have accepted and will assert themselves to improve their lot. Markaila Dyson gives a top quality, triple threat performance as Emmie – acting, singing, and dancing.
A tangible kind of change that drives the plot is that Noah negligently leave coins in his pockets when his pants go into the laundry for Caroline to clean. The amounts are small by most measures, though significant to Caroline. But her honesty and dignity force her to collect the money in a tin can to return to the family, even though Rose suggests that Caroline keep the leavings for herself. However, a single event concerning pocket money will trigger profound changes in domestic relationships.
The storyline is full of light touches, with humorous fantasy in most scenes. The moon, the radio, and the washing machine are all represented by singing human beings. And a doo-wop type trio with powerful voices appears regularly. These friendly apparitions all encourage Caroline to see the positive things in life. Noah, played by an affecting and effective Christopher Apy, worships Caroline because of her strength of character. He tries to lift her spirit and shares her sense of loss as well.
Tesori employs a rich musical palette but with an emphasis on Motown, befitting the times and Caroline’s world. Klezmer also makes appearances for Jewish family gatherings. David Moschler directs the music and a 12-person on-stage orchestra that provides a rich and accurate sound.
Caroline, or Change, with book and lyrics by Tony Kushner and music by Jeanine Tesori, is produced by Ray of Light Theatre and plays at Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th Street, San Francisco, CA through October 5, 2019.