Reduced to micro-blurb, Caroline, or Change is the story of a Jewish boy’s friendship with the black woman who does the laundry, set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement and the assassination of JFK.
You could be excused for thinking, OK, I get it already, pass the Kleenex, I feel weepy redemption coming on.
Think again. This sung-through chamber musical, written by Tony Kushner (Angels in America) with music by Jeanine Tesori (Violet and Fun Home), is a far more nuanced and unresolved portrait of the interaction of race, money, faith and family than you may be bracing yourself for.
No one is compelled to be anyone else’s saviour. No one is the better person for transgressing the codes of race and class with selfless hand extended. Caroline, or Change is nothing if not unusual for its refusal to sugarcoat the inequities at it core, or make heroes and heroines of its characters.
Caroline Thibodeaux (played here by Elenoa Rokobaro) is a middle-aged, Afro-American, church-going woman. She does her job to the highest standard with only the occasional flicker of warmth directed to her employers. Her life is hard work for low wages and there’s nothing to be gained in pretending it isn’t.
But while her indomitable, somewhat intimidating carapace gets her though the day, it also limits the feelings she can express. Caroline – the survivor of an abusive relationship with a Navy veteran – keeps love at arm’s length.
The “change” she faces has multiple meanings. It refers to the pennies and nickels young Noah Gellman (Ryan Yeates) leaves in his pockets for Caroline to find.
Secondly, it refers to the effect this experimental redistribution of wealth has on Caroline, who struggles to give her kids the things they want on the 10 bucks a week she’s paid by Noah’s family.
And via a subplot hinging on the removal of a civic memorial to Louisiana’s Confederate soldiers, it also reflects the shifts in the political and human rights climate of the era.
It’s not all frowning-serious, by the way. Kushner and Tesori are also playful in the creation of Caroline’s world, which includes a soul-singing washing machine, a diabolical clothes dryer, a swooning Louisiana moon and a trio of sassy starlets who burst from the radio.
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Directed by Mitchell Butel on an attractive, split-level set designed by Simon Greer, the show unfolds as a near seamless segue of diverse musical styles (classical, Jewish and soul) and scenes that shift between reality (musical theatre-mediated, of course) and fantasy.
Almost everything depends on the casting of the title role and Rokobaro is wonderful. Her stern, immovably grounded Caroline gives the impression she could knock you down with her fist just as easily as she does with her voice – a gospel-tuned instrument of considerable power.
There’s fine work also from Nkechi Anele as Emmie, Caroline’s teenaged daughter, who comes into focus sharply in the show’s second act.
Yeates (a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory veteran) is excellent as Noah (he rotates the role with Daniel Harris), and Amy Hack impresses as Rose, Noah’s stepmom, a New Yorker finding it hard to adjust to Southern humidity and culture.
Ruva Ngwenya’s singing features prominently in the sassy “radio trio’. She also gives fine voice and a graceful presence to sometimes romantic, sometimes baleful moon hanging over the story.
The second-tier roles are capably acted though the singing isn’t always as secure or as confident as Rokobaro’s. The notable contributions are from Emily Havea as Dottie, the closest thing Caroline has to a friend, from Tony Llewellyn-Jones as firebrand socialist Grandpa Stopnick, and from Genevieve Lemon, who has relatively little to do as Grandma Gellman but does it very well.
Elijah Williams turns up in various guises and emotional states – most memorably as a tumble dryer possibly haunted by the spirit of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.
Opening night revealed a show that is commendably smooth in terms of its operation and song-to-song flow. It’s hard to fault. What it needs to find now, as the season unfolds, are those dramatic flashpoints that stop us in our tracks.