Comment: Caroline, or Change

by Lynn on February 16, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Winter Garden Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Book and lyrics by Tony Kushner

Music by Jeanine Tesori

Directed by Robert McQueen

Musical director, Reza Jacobs

Set by Michael Gianfrancesco

Costumes by Alex Amini

Lighting by Kimberly Purtell

Sound by Peter McBoyle

Choreography by Tim French

Cast: Moses Aidoo

Damien Atkins

Jully Black

Measha Brueggergosman

Oliver Dennis

Camille Eanga-Selenge

Keisha T. Fraser

Deborah Hay

Alana Hibbert

Linda Kash

Evan LeFeuvre

Steward Adam McKensy

Micah Mensah-Jatoe

Sam Rosenthal

Vanessa Sears

Samantha Walks

A comment rather than a review, again late, with apologies.

Jully Black gives a terrific performance as Caroline in her musical theatre debut.

The Story. It’s 1963, Lake Charles, Louisiana. Caroline Thibodeaux is a black maid working for the Jewish, white, Gellman family. Caroline spends much of her time in the hot basement doing laundry. She is 39 years old and expected to be further ahead at that age than still a maid at $30 a week. She is disappointed by life. Her marriage broke up when her equally disappointed husband hit her in frustration. She forgave him the first time, but not the second. Caroline sings with resentment of turning the other cheek. She comments on her anger as does everyone else it seems.

She has a secret ritual with eight-year-old Noah Gellman. He lights the one cigarette Caroline allows herself. Noah’s mother has recently died. He misses her dearly. He does not like Rose, his new stepmother although Rose is loving and tries to win him over.

Rose is the most perceptive character in the show. She knows how hurt and alone Noah is. She knows her husband Stuart is still grieving for his late wife. She knows that Caroline is angry. Rose knows $30 a week is not enough to pay Caroline but they can’t afford to pay more, so Rose tries to help by telling Caroline she can keep whatever money she finds in Noah’s pants pockets when it comes time to do the wash. Noah always forgets to empty his pockets. This will teach him a lesson. This money also causes the change (yes, the pun is intended) that shifts the narrative.

The Production. Michael Gianfrancesco’s multi-levelled set has Noah’s bedroom on the upper level. It’s also the place where the personification of the moon represented by the magnificent Measha Brueggergosman, shines bright. The ground level is the main house and about three steps down is the hot basement with the washing machine. The basement is Caroline’s domain. Jully Black as Caroline is commanding in this impressive debut to musical theatre. Ms Black of course has made her name as a celebrated singer-songwriter-recording artist. She can now add formidable actress to the list. Her performance as Caroline is fierce and without a shred of sentiment. It takes guts to perform such an unhappy character without wanting to soften her and win us over. Black is measured, contained and dour.

The voice is pure and gets to the heart of every song. She sings of having to turn the other cheek. It makes her bitter. Both Noah and Rose mispronounce Caroline’s name—they say it with a soft ‘i’ and not a long ‘i’ as it was intended and yet she never corrects them. Later Noah does pronounce it properly after a shift in his relationship with her, but Rose remains ignorant of the correct pronunciation because she’s not corrected. It’s interesting trying to put oneself in Caroline’s shoes to ponder why playwright Tony Kushner never had Caroline correct the mispronunciation (afraid for her job? Gives her another reason to be angry?).

When Caroline keeps a $20 bill found in Noah’s pants pocket and won’t give it back, Noah says a racist thing to her in anger. She replies in a calm, cold voice with an equally devastating racist remark. The result in both cases is shattering. As Noah, Evan Lefeuvre is a lovely mix of precocious and shy, confident and awkward.  Damien Atkins is walking sadness as Stuart Gellman, unable to get out of his grief or comfort his equally unhappy son. As Rose Gellman, Deborah Hay illuminates the sadness of the woman. She is out of place and does not know how to find her place to give comfort to her family or to Caroline. There are no villains here, only people who are hurting.

The show is over amplified so the sound often distorts the lyrics. Getting the sound balance right seems the hardest thing in the theatre world and hearing the lyrics clearly, certainly in this almost sung-through show, is crucial. 

Comment. Playwright/lyricist Tony Kushner says that Caroline, or Change is his most autobiographical work. He did grow up in Lake Charles, Louisiana. His parents were musicians (although his mother did not die young).  They had a black maid who worked for his family. He remembers her as angry.

Caroline is unhappy until she realizes that her sadness is hurting her and those around her and she seeks divine help. There is a kind of redemption. The show is challenging because of Caroline’s anger. But the cast and especially Jully Black are so accomplished you stay the course, caring for and trying to understand these wounded people.

Produced by the Musical Stage Company and Obsidian Theatre Company.

Began: Jan. 30, 2020.

Closes: Feb. 16, 2020 (Feb. 16, 3:00 pm performance added).

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, approx.

Leave a Comment

Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.