Saturday, May 11, 2019

Caroline, or Change

One of the themes of the gorgeous and heart-breaking Caroline, or Change, the story of an African-American maid working for a Jewish family in the 1960s South, is that "change come fast, change come slow, but change come." Caroline, written by Tony Kushner with music by Jeanine Tesori, premiered in 2003. Unfortunately, in 2019, in the superb production currently playing at APAC in Queens, another one of its themes is that change is still terribly needed.

Lauren Singerman, LaDonna Burns
Photo: Michael R. Dekker
Caroline's life is tediously difficult. She spends far too much of it cleaning and doing the Gellmans' laundry in a hot room in the hot South. She has four kids, and she would do anything for them--such as continuing to do the Gellmans' laundry in that purgatory of a laundry room. Larry, her oldest, is in Vietnam, "wherever that is." Her next oldest, Emmie, has a mind of her own, which terrifies Caroline but also makes her proud.

Noah, the 8-year-old son of the Gellman family, is always sad, but he is comforted by what he perceives as his friendship with Caroline. Noah's mother died a few years back, and his father married her best friend Rose. Noah's father is wraith-like nonpresence, and Noah hates Rose, mostly for not being his dead mother. But he adores Caroline despite her anger and unwillingness to be nice to him. Rose, whose good-heartedness is unfortunately dwarfed by her cluelessness, also tries to befriend Caroline.

Noah tends to leave change in his pockets when he puts his pants in the hamper. Rose decides to teach him a lesson, and to "help" Caroline, by telling Caroline to keep whatever money she finds. In Kushner's brilliant hands, this small, weird decision turns that awful laundry room into a crucible in which Caroline's heart and soul are tested.

Caroline combines theatrical magic realism (the washer and dryer are personified) with hard-hitting reality (Caroline's ex-husband being refused employment after the war because he's black; bills that can't be paid; buses that never come). It has humor and warmth amid the heartbreak, and its deep sadness is mitigated for the audience by its deep beauty. Tesori's thrilling score utilizes the sounds of Motown, spirituals, blues, Motown, and klezmer, with perfectly chosen quotes from well-known songs (e.g., "America, the Beautiful"). Kushner's book and lyrics work on many levels, with wit, compassion, and great humanity.

Caroline is not an easy show to do. It requires a first-class cast and a director with a sure hand. In the APAC production, it has both, along with a small but excellent band and solid production values.

The role of Caroline demands a tour de force performance that ranges from subtlety to raw power. LaDonna Burns' performance is frighteningly good. Even while keeping Caroline as closed-off and angry as she needs to be, Burns provides a three-dimensional portrait of a complex woman who is a hero with a horribly limited battlefield and no parades or medals. (To further attest to Burns' outstanding talent, she was an amazing Stella in APAC's Follies, funny and likeable.)

The rest of the cast is also top-notch, really as good as you could ask for. My only complaint was that a couple of people didn't project that well, but all in all it was an extreme pleasure to hear the casts' glorious voices unmiked.

Caroline is directed by Dev Bondarin, of whom I am a great fan. Bondarin goes to the heart of a show, understands it on all levels, and honors the work by presenting it in its best light. I saw Caroline, or Change both Off-Broadway and on, and thanks to Bondarin and everyone else involved, this production is every bit as amazing.

Wendy Caster
(first row, press ticket)
Show-Score: 98

1 comment:

msdworks said...

Throughly good description of a terrific show and score.