BWW Review: CAROLINE, OR CHANGE: Will it Change You?
CAROLINE, OR CHANGE is shaking up the Omaha Community Playhouse. The closest to this musical that I've seen on stage is FUN HOME, winner of five 2015 Tony Awards, including best original score by Jeanine Tesori. In 2004 Tesori was also nominated for best original score for CAROLINE, OR CHANGE and won the Drama Desk Award for outstanding music. Both musicals are sung throughout. They both have intimate settings: one in a funeral home and one in a basement laundry (which are both dead ends.) Both have important social messages. But while I was emotionally devastated by FUN HOME, I left CAROLINE, OR CHANGE with my emotions in check. Don't mistake my meaning: it is a tremendous production that will most likely knock the socks off the audience and clean up the Omaha theater awards. It packs a punch.
The libretto for CAROLINE, OR CHANGE was written by Tony Kushner, a much respected American playwright. Kushner has received multiple Tony Awards, an Emmy, and the coveted Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1993 for his play "Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes." Kushner, the son of a clarinetist and a bassoonist, drew upon his childhood experiences in Lake Charles, Louisiana during the Civil Rights Movement for his book and lyrics.
The story centers on Caroline Thibodeaux, an impoverished black maid to the Jewish Gellman family living in Louisiana in 1963. While Caroline is single parenting her three children at home with a fourth son serving in Vietnam, the Gellmans are a broken family trying to put themselves back together after the untimely death of Mrs. Gellman. The Gellmans are proud owners of a basement, which is an anomaly in that part of the South where there is a high water table. Being 16 feet "underwater" Caroline feels suffocated by piles of laundry that never end, symbolic of the oppression and hopelessness that Caroline sees as her unending future.
When Gellmans' young son Noah continues to leave loose change in his pockets, his stepmother Rose, trying to be a good mother and a benevolent employer, tells Caroline she may keep any money she finds. This serves as both a responsibility lesson to the boy, and as a means to pad Caroline's meager salary of $30 a week, which is well below the poverty level. Unfortunately, this is just another well-meaning gesture that triggers a bitter battle of conscience in Caroline, who is proud and doesn't want a handout, yet struggles daily to provide for her children. Noah fantasizes about the glory he will receive from the appreciative Caroline and family. The story climaxes when Caroline finds the $20 bill in Noah's pocket that he was given as a Chunukah gift from his grandfather.
What is change? Is it loose coins in the pocket or is it something bigger?
Susan Baer Collins directs this diverse and gifted cast. Echelle Childers is a force as Caroline Thibodeaux. Stoic and proud, she shows glimpses of vulnerability. She tells Noah (Danny Denenberg) that they are not friends, but she lets him light her cigarettes, a symbolic act that belies her words. She fights mundane battles and finds no joy, nor hope in a world that is changing without her. Echelle's big moment comes with her powerful solo, "Lot's Wife" where she lets it all go. Her explosive outburst grabs the audience, causing it to burst into spontaneous applause and whistles.
Incredibly talented young Danny Denenberg wrestles with the death of his mother and acceptance of his gentle hearted stepmother Rose (Kimberly McGreevy), while not finding consolation in his withdrawn father (Scott Van Den Top). He finds refuge in Caroline, even believing that she would be a suitable next president when JFK is shot. His range of expression from wonderment to outrage is impressive.
Equally impressive are Joe Dignoti as Rose's imposing father, Mr. Stopnick, and newcomer Aguel Lual as Caroline's rebellious teenage daughter, Emmie. This veteran and this novice face off and each comes out a winner in their battle over race and resistance. With strong vocals and a refreshing ferocity, Aguel is one of my favorites in the show. Regina Palmer as Caroline's best friend Dotty, is the counterweight voice of reason and gentility. Lovely with a thirst for education, she rocks those saddle shoes as a symbol of fitting in, but stands up to Caroline who criticizes her for trying to better herself. The Stopnick grandparents, Jerry Van Horn and Sarah Planck, try good-naturedly to divert the family from dwelling on whatever is ugly and to convince them to be merry. Caroline's boys, played by Wayne Hudson and Kundai Jacha, have no problem being merry, giving the show another brief respite from all the sadness and misery.
Spending much time alone, Caroline gives life to the objects that fill her life. The radio, a recreated Motown trio, fills the dreary basement laundry room with music. Rachel Busse, Dani Cleveland, and Erin Florea sway in and out of the story with their sparkles, big hair, and bigger smiles. The washing machine spins alive through the spunky Zhomontee Watson. Washing clothes is a party! Nik Whitcomb, on the other hand, turns drying clothes into a venture into the heat of hell. His ominous low thunder of a voice and lighted red collar trim assure us we don't want to spend another minute in the hot basement of the Louisiana house. Kathy Banta shines over all as an iridescent moon with big sound. These personifications are whimsical and fun.
Conversely, Stuart Gellman's (Scott Van Den Top) fragile hold on reality is depicted through his clarinet. A professional clarinetist, he uses his instrument to escape and to soothe his troubled soul. Under the direction of Doran Schmidt, clarinetist Shari Lyles' sweet tones float mournfully throughout the house. It is chillingly beautiful.
CAROLINE, OR CHANGE is a unique theater experience with a message. The message may be different for each of us. Yes, it is about civil rights and economic injustices. But it is also about the human spirit: how we react to our circumstances. Do we act out? Speak out? Try to fit in? Try to better ourselves? Or do we give up and say there is no hope. This is a story of every man. Caroline starts out washing clothes in a basement, Caroline ends up washing clothes in the basement. Nothing changes. Perhaps that is the point. As to whether her story changes you...that's up to you.