You've never seen anything quite like Caroline, or Change, the new production at the Public Theater, and you likely won't again any time soon.
It doesn't seem right to call it a musical drama or even a folk opera, though it has similarities to both. Rather, Caroline, or Change is a poetry musical, taking place in a modern setting (Louisiana in 1963) and dealing with modern social issues, and feeling as completely "today" as all innovative musicals do when first presented.
George C. Wolfe has done to this musical what he did for Radiant Baby earlier this year: exert so firm and knowing a hand that the production transcends the material. But that's Wolfe's peculiar talent, finding the passion, movement, and color of a piece and imbuing every element of his production with them. The sets (Riccardo Hernández), costumes (Paul Tazewell), and lighting (Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer) are all exactly right, but, as in Radiant Baby, none can make you forget the show as a whole never achieves its fullest potential.
What makes Caroline, or Change thrilling is its rock-solid conviction and iron-clad integration of all the elements constituting the work. There's never a moment that the part-pop, part-opera, and part-musical theatre score Jeanine Tesori has conjured up from a bevy of twentieth-century musical styles doesn't ideally match Tony Kushner's meticulously chosen words with clarion precision.
Yet, in the end, Kushner is such a dominating force that the music fades into the background, drenched in irrelevancy; Tesori's work often feels like little more than a concession to an audience. As almost every word uttered during the course of the show is sung, you have plenty of time to reflect on the great disparity between Tesori's almost incidental tunes and Kushner's highly lyrical book and lyrics. There being no give and take between the music and lyrics is never a sign of a well-constructed musical.
Nor is padding the material to add flavor but no substance. Case in point: Anthropomorphizing a washer, a dryer, a radio, and the moon itself allows Kushner to spin a unique mythological web around his subject matter, but as the characters must be given music (this is a musical, after all), their importance becomes inflated. So does the show, which begins each act with a lengthy scene in which these devices come to life; it's clever but unnecessary as a central fixture, never contributing enough to the world of the play, or of the central story.
That story, laced with the sociological threads that are Kushner's trademarks, is powerful enough on its own. The woman creating companions from inanimate objects is Caroline (Tonya Pinkins), a black divorced mother of four working as a maid to the Gellman family. She gets dragged into a battle of wills between the family's son Noah (Harrison Chad) and his stepmother Rose (Veanne Cox), when Rose tries to assert her authority (and love) by teaching a lesson about money: Caroline gets to keep any change she finds in Noah's pants pockets while she's doing the laundry.
For Noah, who likes Caroline much as his late mother did, Caroline's acceptance of this agreement is something of a betrayal; for Rose, it's an opportunity to give Caroline the raise the family can't officially afford; and for Caroline and her children, it's an opportunity for a better life. Rose's action ripples throughout both families, and Kushner explores the repercussions from every perspective. Caroline, or Change is nothing if not thorough in its examination of class struggle, tacit racism, and self-esteem.
It's just that the subject is never made particularly musical. The characters more often seem to long to break out into poetry recitations rather than song; the dialogue reads on the page like a verse play, more than most through-sung musicals. Tesori's music just adds very little - her thumping, plodding musical lines seldom give way naturally to song, and the tunes she's given to Kushner's dialogue scenes frequently make them all but interminable. Only Cox is established effectively through music, her tunes colorfully dictated and at sharp contrast from what most of the other characters sing (they often resemble Sondheim's most pointillistic compositions from Sunday in the Park With George).
As such, of the performers, she comes off the best. The talented Chad is great fun to watch, but can't make much out of his underwritten role. David Costabile, as Noah's father, tends to vanish onstage, his most memorable moments coming from his musical diversions with a clarinet. Alice Playten and Reathel Bean are entertaining as Noah's grandparents, but also have little to do. Anika Noni Rose, as Caroline's daughter, possesses a winning youthful exuberance and an often terrific belt voice. Capathia Jenkins, Chuck Cooper, and Adriane Lenox are memorable in their difficult roles as the Washer, the Dryer (also a Bus), and the Moon respectively.
As for Pinkins, she sings as dynamically as possible, but is often too cool to connect to the material or audience emotionally. Given but one opportunity to let loose vocally (in what would be the show's 11 o'clock number if it had "songs"), she scores, but in spite of the music, not because of it. Still, the lyrics she's singing are perfect for Caroline: "I ain't got the heart, / I can't hardly read. / Some folks do all kinds of things and / black folks someday live like kings / and someday sunshine shine all day / oh sure it true / it be that way / but not for me / not not for me!"
Tesori never really had a chance. Kushner's work is too musical to need her.