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Broadway Reviews

Caroline, or Change

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - May 2, 2004

Caroline, or Change Book and lyrics by Tony Kushner. Music by Jeanine Tesori. Directed by George C. Wolfe. Choreography by Hope Clarke. Scenic design by Riccardo Hernández. Costume design by Paul Tazewell. Lighting design by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. Sound design by Jon Weston. Hair design by Jeffrey Frank. Orcestrations by Rick Bassett, Joseph Joubert, Buryl Red. Cast: Tonya Pinkins, Reathel Bean, Harrison Chad, Tracy Nicole Chapman, David Costabile, Veanne Cox, Aisha de Haas, Marcus Carl Franklin, Marva Hicks, Capathia Jenkins, Larry Keith, Ramona Keller, Alice Playten, Anika Noni Rose, Leon G. Thomas III, Chandra Wilson, and Chuck Cooper. The producers would like to thank Helen and Peter Bing for their support of Caroline, or Change. The producers wish to also express their appreciation to Theatre Development Fund for its support of this production.
Theatre: Eugene O'Neill Theatre, 230 West 49th Street
Schedule: Tuesday at 7 PM, Wednesday through Saturday at 8 PM, Wednesday and Saturday at 2 PM, Sunday at 3 PM
Audience: May be inappropriate for 10 and under. Children under the age of 4 are not permitted in the theatre.
Running Time: 2 hours 25 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission.
Ticket price: $101 and $76. VIP Tickets available from Broadway Inner Circle for $240 ($200 plus a $40 service charge). Please call Broadway Inner Circle at 212.563.2929
Tickets: Telecharge

Never let it be said that Broadway cannot still be a magical place. Somewhere in the 40 or so blocks between The Public Theater and the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, something amazing happened to Caroline, or Change: it became a full-fledged musical.

When it opened Off-Broadway at the Newman in November, Caroline, or Change was intriguing, clever, and thoroughly professional, but quite cold. It was so absorbed in its own poetry that its music sometimes seemed secondary; the show connected with audiences indirectly when it connected with them at all.

But director George C. Wolfe has given Caroline, or Change the most effective Broadway transfer since Elaine Stritch At Liberty (another show he directed that started at The Public). He and his company have proved this show didn't need rewrites or recasting (though both have happened to small degrees): it needed time to sort itself out and, more importantly, the size and energy that only a Broadway theater can provide.

Not that the show has suddenly morphed into an audience pleaser. Authors Tony Kushner (book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (music) are significant talents, but while they've unlocked the show's heat, heart, and soul, they still haven't made their civil-rights musical as instantly accessible as another playing not far away. Kushner and Tesori's show is quasi-operatic, harsher, and less sympathetic, but often more real and theatrical than Hairspray.

Under Wolfe's direction, Caroline, or Change feels no less energetic; the Off-Broadway production's tendency toward lethargy has been almost totally erased. The sets (Riccardo Hernández), costumes (by Paul Tazewell), lights (Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer), and even the orchestrations (Rick Bassett, Joseph Joubert, and Buryl Reed) and musical direction (Linda Twine) seem smoother and sleeker now, giving the show the rich, successful sheen it didn't quite have before. Now, everything just clicks.

Certain problems will probably always remain: parts of the show feel chilly and distancing; some elements of the story could still be tightened; the 1963 Lake Charles, Louisiana setting is not one that easily gives way to the singing and dancing of a host of inanimate objects; and the titular character is one quite difficult to successfully build a musical around.

That's Caroline Thibodeaux (Tonya Pinkins), the maid to the Jewish Gellman family. She seldom talks and less frequently smiles, even to her own friends and children, and always looks to be just on the brink of tears or an explosion of rage. She can only really relate to the washer (Capathia Jenkins), the radio (Tracy Nicole Chapman, Marva Hicks, and Ramona Keller), and the dryer (Chuck Cooper) in the Gellman's basement, though she also has a nominal friendship with the family's son, Noah (Harrison Chad).

He looks up to her as the pillar of strength he needs now that his own mother is dead; his father Stuart (David Costabile), unable to deal with his grief, now does little more than play his clarinet. He remarried a woman named Rose (Veanne Cox), who wants to assert her authority (and prove her love) to Noah by declaring that Caroline should be allowed to keep whatever money she finds in Noah's pockets while doing the laundry.

That decision eventually leads to the destruction of all boundaries of propriety between the Gellmans and the Thibodeauxs, as they re-enact on a small scale the battles of economic and racial equality at that time gripping the country. Kushner's exploration of these issues is unyielding, and his writing gives the show the taut feeling lesser writers might strive for but never really achieve. Caroline, or Change is still primarily Kushner's show.

While Tesori's music masterfully mixes 1960s song styles, it doesn't always connect to the lyrics (or characters) as well as it might. That's a significant issue in a sung-through work, but when Kushner and Tesori are on the same page, the results are beautiful: a lengthy sequence near the end of the first act, overseen by the moon (Aisha de Haas), in which different characters in different places all share the stage, is brilliant; the 11 o'clock number in which Caroline faces her own inability to change her long-held beliefs and prejudices is one of the season's most stirring musical moments.

Pinkins has deepened her portrayal, and now taps more easily into the blood beneath Caroline's cold exterior. Pinkins, who must have been constrained in the small Newman but now no longer needs to hold back, does some truly epic work. This lessens the impact of some of the other performances, particularly those of Cox and Anika Noni Rose (as Caroline's willful daughter, Emmie); they stole the show Off-Broadway, but now are part of a strong ensemble, still very good but not overwhelming. (The same can also be said of Alice Playten and Reathel Bean, who play Noah's grandparents.)

Chad remains fine as Noah, childish but never whiny; Jenkins, Cooper, and the Radio women have eased into their roles and have more fun with them now; Larry Keith is even better as Rose's argumentative father; and Chandra Wilson makes a bigger impression as Caroline's entrepreneurial friend, Dotty. De Haas's performance trumps that of the Moon's originator, Adriane Lenox (now Pinkins's standby). De Haas's presence is sinuous, and her softer edges help keep her more in tune with the rest of the show.

Despite the many changes that have been made, this show is not likely to appeal to everyone, and whether the fourteen or fifteen above-the-title producers will find commercial success with the transfer remains to be seen. But in terms of filling a Broadway-sized house and meeting Broadway-sized expectations, Caroline, or Change is now, at least, an impressive artistic success.

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