BWW Review: CAROLINE, OR CHANGE at the Winter Garden Theatre
The theatre shook with applause for Jully Black last night as she opened the musical CAROLINE, OR CHANGE at the Winter Garden Theatre. She was one of many in the cast to give powerhouse performances in a dramatically and musically challenging show.
Caroline (Black) is a black maid working for a white Jewish family in Louisiana in the 1960s. Her life has been marked by hardship - her ex-husband hit her, her son has been shipped off to Vietnam, and the ever-present spectre of American racism haunts her at every corner. She does not march, as her friends do; she does not participate in civic action or political dialogue. She just works to support her children by cooking and cleaning at the Gellman household for $30 a week.
The Gellmans are good people; they respect Caroline, even if they don't understand what she's been through and why she won't smile for them. In an effort to help Caroline out - sort of - Mrs Stopnick Gellman (Deborah Hay) tells her adopted eight-year-old son, Noah (Evan Lefeuvre), that Caroline will get to keep any change he leaves in his pocket. This thrills the little boy, who, since his mother died, has attached to Caroline as a parental figure. Day after day he leaves dimes and quarters in his pocket, imagining the love that Caroline and her children must feel for their generous provider.
Noah is essentially a white saviour in training. Like his grandfather (Sam Rosenthal), an old-school Marxist who thinks Martin Luther King, Jr. should give up on that silly non-violence, Noah wants to liberate the masses but he doesn't care what they have to say about it. The challenges of solidarity between marginalised groups is one of the predominant themes in Tony Kushner's complex book.
CAROLINE, OR CHANGE is a challenging play not only for the cast but also for the audience, who are forced to make sense of a tragedy of good intentions. This show has no bad guy, only a bad system, bad history. Occasional moments of levity don't take away from the fact that nearly every character spends most of the play in mourning: Caroline for her hopes and ambitions, and the Gellmans for their wife, daughter, and mother. At times it feels like the "Look Down" number from Les Miserables is playing on repeat; Jean Valjean never left prison, but he keeps singing about it.
The show really picks up towards the end of the first act, when we first meet Caroline's children. This is partly because their song brings some much-needed energy into an otherwise swampy story, but also because the kids in this cast are simply terrific. Young actors Micah Mensa-Jatoe and Moses Aidoo perform a great number with Vanessa Sears, a standout as Caroline's headstrong daughter. Along with Lefeuvre, who can do more at ten years old than I can at 26, they show incredible promise for the future of the performing arts in Canada.
And then there's Caroline herself, Jully Black. Through most of the first act, Caroline is stoically grumpy. She belts a few bars and grunts the rest. It's not until the second act that Black's depth as an actor and genius as a singer really come to light. The applause she earned after the second-act solo "Lot's Wife" last night shook the leaves on the ceiling of the theatre.
Musical Stage Company & Obsidian Theatre's CAROLINE, OR CHANGE runs through 15 February at the Winter Garden Theatre, 189 Yonge St, Toronto.
For more information or to buy tickets, click here.
Photo credit: Dahlia Katz