It’s been 15 years since Caroline, or Change first premiered at New York’s Public Theater, and in that decade and a half, few new musicals have come close to matching its ambition or complexity. (An exception could be Fun Home which, like Caroline, also features a score by Jeanine Tesori). If ambition could sell tickets, it’s likely that Caroline, or Change would still be running on Broadway today (it unjustly shuttered after four short months).
When I saw George C. Wolfe’s production on Broadway in 2004, I felt certain that I had just seen a new masterpiece of American theater. Tony Kushner’s book and lyrics—along with Tesori’s penetrating and intelligent score—coexist in ways that remain rich and surprising to this day. After all, a musical that employs a singing washer, dryer, moon, and bus better—at the very least—be surprising.
In segregationist 1963 Louisiana, a maid named Caroline (Yewande Odetoyinbo) is suffocating in the stifling hot basement purgatory of the Gellman family home. She’s literally suffocating, yes—and the dryer only makes it worse—but figuratively, too, as she finds herself trapped not only by the limitations of her circumstances (she’s a poor, single mother of three) but also by the anger and resentment that has built up over the course of her life.
She works for the Gellman family where father Stuart (Rob Orzalli) is recently widowed and has sworn off God, and his 8-year-old son Noah (Ben Choi-Harris) doesn’t quite get along with his new stepmom, Rose (Sarah Kornfeld). Whether she likes it or not, Noah—who is loosely based on Kushner himself—hangs around Caroline and thinks the world of her, even if he wonders why she’s so sad and angry all the time.
Rose is tired of Noah leaving change in his pockets, so to teach him a lesson, she instructs Caroline to keep whatever change she finds in the laundry. But the idea of taking money from a boy ultimately plunges Caroline in crisis mode: Every time she takes a coin out of the bleach cup, she sacrifices a piece of her integrity. But when Caroline takes $20 that she finds in his pants at Chanukah, she feels that she has hit rock bottom. And in her 11 o’clock number, “Lot’s Wife” (one of the greatest and most wrenching songs written for the stage in the last 20 years), she pleads to God to kill off the Caroline that has dreams and desires so that she can return to her job, as miserable as it is, so that her kids might one day have a better life.
The struggle for Caroline is that she must learn to accept her life as it is without the desire for more. It is, in a sense, that she makes peace with the fact that she sacrificed her life so that her children would never have to be anybody’s maid. Her eldest, Jackie (Kira Troilo), already fighting for civil rights and dreaming of her future, is that glimmer of hope, even if Troilo feels miscast and doesn’t quite fully realize the potential of the role.
As much as I admire the musical—and Moonbox’s ambition for taking it on—this production frequently feels misguided, slapdash, and just not ready to do the heavy lifting that Kushner and Tesori’s work requires. There is not enough finesse in Choat’s direction to make this beautiful, painful, and defiant musical work on any real level.
But that doesn’t take away from Odetoyinbo’s ruthlessly moving performance as Caroline. Her voice is both a prayer and an answer, the most nuanced and breathlessly complete musical performance so far this year. Lyndsay Allyn Cox also does terrific work as Caroline’s friend, Dotty, but the rest of the cast is largely too much (Davron S. Monroe) or not enough (Ben Choi-Harris and Kira Troilo).
Caroline, or Change is a vital and important work of art that will likely go down in history (if it hasn’t already) as being one of the most overlooked and underappreciated pieces of musical theater. But aside from Yewande Odetoyinbo’s gorgeous performance at this production’s center, Moonbox’s Caroline would benefit from a little change.
CAROLINE, OR CHANGE. THROUGH 5.11 AT MOONBOX PRODUCTIONS AT THE BOSTON CENTER FOR THE ARTS, 527 TREMONT ST., BOSTON. MOONBOX.ORG