BWW Reviews: CAROLINE, OR CHANGE is Part History Lesson, Part Life Lesson
The ‘first three seconds’ is an unofficial entertainer’s rule, the mantra that a stunning moment must commence any performance. Nowhere is this felt more strongly than the theater, which relies on live energy for each show -- and a different energy each night. In the age of instant gratification, it’s increasingly hard to convince an audience (especially a young one) that a theatrical production about history and a family’s journey is worth two or more hours of time.
Whether it’s the work of playwright Tony Kushner’s stage directions or Director Marcela Lorca’s adaptation, Caroline, or Change at Syracuse Stage begins in pitch darkness with a quiet, swampy chorus of bullfrogs and crickets. The audience is content to conjure memories of summer nights before Caroline (Greta Oglesby) appears in a basement laundry room. She immediately begins to sing, and it’s not just any song. It’s a throaty, guttural, belt about her place in the world, underwater, doing someone else’s laundry; a perfect start to composer Jeanine Tesori’s soaring score.
Kushner’s nearly-autobiographical story takes place in Lake Charles, Lousiana. It’s 1963, the year of President Kennedy’s assassination. The Civil Rights Movement is swelling, and the America is ripe for change. Caroline Thibodeaux is a black, 39-year-old divorcee and single mom of four. To pay the bills, she works as a maid for Stuart Gellman, a Jewish clarinetist. Within the last year, Gellman lost his wife (and bassoon-playing duet partner) to cancer. He remarries a friend, Rose (Piper Goodeve), launching his 10-year-old son Noah (Séamus Gailor) into an odd attachment to Caroline, though the duo’s only regular interaction is a 'daily smoke,' where Noah lights Caroline’s cigarette.
In an effort to break the boy’s allegiance to the maid and correct his carelessness, Rose decides any loose change left in his pants pockets will be given to Caroline. Though Caroline is hesitant to “take pennies from a baby” at first, the desire to bolster her weekly salary of $30 eventually takes over. Her daughter, Emmie (Stephanie Umoh), is involved in the Civil Rights Movement. As the effects of President Kennedy’s assassination sweep the nation, change is inevitable.
Somehow, the only change that exists for Caroline is the loose coins in the bottom of the bleach cup. Greta Oglesby carries the show’s emotional weight on her able shoulders as she shifts from oppressed maid to authoritative mother and becomes almost obsessive over the loose change found in Noah’s pockets.
Cortland resident Séamus Gailor, a fourth grader, performs the role of Noah with a brash confidence well beyond his years. Through ample singing, dancing and interaction with other characters, he blends effortlessly with a cast of equity actors 10 - 20 years older. Aside from the human roles in the show, Kushner utilizes abstract reality to create characters from the Washer (Danielle K. Thomas) and Dryer (Doug Eskew), the Radio (played by The Supremes-like trio Caitlainne Rose Gurreri, Gabrielle Porter and Christina Acosta Robinson) and the Bus (also played by Eskew). The moon (Emily Jenda) also makes an appearance in several songs, linking each character’s loneliness and longings.
The climax of the show comes when Caroline finds a $20 bill in Noah’s pocket - a Hanukkah gift from Rose’s father - and refuses to return it to the boy. They fight and he wishes death on Caroline. She tells him Jews go to hell and leaves. It follows that a story beginning with death - Noah’s mother, Caroline’s marriage - would end with rebirth. By the end of the two hour and 25 minute show, Caroline returns to her job. Stuart extends a hand to Rose, and they walk offstage.
Caroline sings her apology to Noah: “Noah, someday we’ll talk again/But they’s things we’ll never say/That sorrow deep inside you/It inside me too/And it never go away/You be okay.” Noah lays in bed with a teddy bear, content to sleep now that he and Caroline will once again have their ‘daily smoke.’
Kushner’s book and lyrics are part life lesson, part history lesson; while Tesori’s score is part Sunday church service, part jazz lounge. With a familiar story, foot-stomping songs and characters that resonate with every audience member, Caroline, or Change is a musical for everyone -- even the non-musical-loving theatergoer.
Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson.