By Karen Isaacs
Sharon D. Clarke is giving a star turn as the lead in the Broadway revival of Caroline, or Change now at Roundabout’s Studio 54.
Clarke who reprising the role that won critical acclaim at England’s Chichester Festival, is joined by several other outstanding performances.
And yet, somehow the show just didn’t engage me. I recall the original Broadway production in 2006 starring Tanya Pinkins as an enjoyable evening in the theater, so I was looking forward to seeing the show again. I walked away surprisingly disappointed.
The fault lies not with the cast or perhaps even the director Michael Longhurst, but with the work itself. As I was watching it, I kept jotting notes of plot elements that seemed drawn from other shows.
The book and lyrics are by Tony Kushner and music by Jeanine Tesori. Certainly I saw references to Kushner’s other works in the piece.
Caroline is a 39 year-old mother who is a maid for white Jewish family in Louisiana in 1963. There’s the disengaged (or still grieving) father Stuart Gellman, his new wife (Rose) and his son, Noah. Caroline has three children: almost adult Emmie and her two younger brothers Jackie and Joe.
The focus is on Caroline, who Noah seems attached to, her friend Dotty who is going to school so she can stop being a maid, and Emmie who represents the younger generation pushing for civil rights.
The setting is 1963 for no apparent reason except to bring in the assassination of JFK. Since that has no relevance for what goes on, you wonder why it couldn’t be another year since the entire decade was filled with civil actions.
Caroline spends much of the show in the basement of the Gellman house, doing laundry. How could a family of three have that much laundry? The basement is unusual in Louisiana; because of the high water table and flooding, even burials are above ground. But it is clearly meant as a metaphor for Caroline’s place. As Caroline goes about her endless laundry, the washer, dryer and the radio come to life, personified as characters who help delineate her thoughts and feelings.
The plot, what little there is of it, revolves around Noah’s habit of leaving change in the pockets of his pants which Caroline finds and then returns to the family. Rose is annoyed that he continues to do that, so she tells Caroline she can keep any change she finds.
Do we have to guess that first Noah purposefully leaves change to help his friend, but when he accidentally leaves a twenty dollar bill in his pocket, he lashes out at Caroline who is going to keep it? That scene reminded me of Athol Fugard’s Master Harold and the Boys.
As you enter the theater, you don’t see the Gellman home, but the town square with a statue of a Confederate soldier; act two opens with the soldier having been destroyed by unknown people. Perhaps it is a representation of the civil rights movement occurring. But maybe it is there so at the very end, we can learn that Emmie was one of the people who took it down.
While you may be involved in the story while watching it, afterwards you keep asking Why this or that was included. It doesn’t seem to hang together in any meaningful way.
You keep asking questions — From why Caroline is always doing laundry, to why the washer and dryer have to come to life, commenting on her life. At least the girl singing group that emerges from the radio that keeps Caroline company has some possible logic to it.
Another issue is the difficulty in understanding the lyrics to the dozens of songs. They aren’t listed in the program as individual songs, which makes it hard to recall specific numbers. Most aren’t even given unique names but instead are called “The Cigarette,” or “Down the Stairs.”
Standouts in the cast, besides Clarke are Samantha Williams as Emmie, and Chip Zien as Rose’s leftwing father who visits for Chanukah. It is a small role and seems there only to express radical Northern views and to give Noah the twenty dollar bill.
John Cariani has the underwritten role of Stuart who seems more focused on practicing his clarinet than recognizing that his new wife is not really happy and that his son is still grieving. He does get one good song at the end that makes him more sympathetic; he too is still grieving.
Caroline, or Change features a terrific performance but overall it is a show that I wanted to like, but just could not.
For tickets visit RoundaboutTheatre.org.