"Caroline, or Change" plays better on Broadway, but it's still a small, message-laden musical filled with big, fitfully realized ambitions.
Author Tony Kushner has more on his mind than just an intimate tale of the uneasy relationship between a black maid and the young son of a Jewish family in 1963 Louisiana. The musical possesses a sense of history, much like its author's epic AIDS drama, "Angels in America."
You have to give credit to Kushner, who wrote the book and lyrics, and Jeanine Tesori, who wrote the music, for trying to expand the confines of musical theater with their show, which opened Sunday at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre after a successful off-Broadway run earlier in the season.
Yet the somber, weighty feeling of the old order giving way to the new - prompted here by the beginning of the civil rights movement, the shattering of security after President Kennedy's assassination and the emerging shadow of Vietnam - is a heavy burden for "Caroline" to bear.
It's intertwined with the personal saga of an embittered, middle-age woman, a story that doesn't easily lend itself to song - even with the formidable Tonya Pinkins as the title character. The mixture can, at times, get heavy-handed.
Pinkins portrays a 39-year-old divorcee grappling with the disappointments of the past and a fear of the future. The actress remains a marvel, giving one of those fierce, uncompromising performances that people will talk about for years to come. Pinkins' Caroline Thibodeaux is a complex woman, dressed in a starchy maid's uniform that she sees as defining and limiting her life.
All this unhappiness comes together late in the show's second act when her anger finally explodes. "Don't let my sorrow make evil of me," she sings with heartfelt desperation.
It's one of the few moments in Tesori's eclectic score that allows the audience some release, a full-fledged number that gives them a chance to applaud. Much of music in this mostly sung-through score arrives in fragments, tantalizing bits and pieces that demonstrate the composer's astonishing gift for melody whether the music is rhythm 'n' blues, Jewish folk tunes, Christmas carols, nursery rhymes or even vaguely operatic.
Kushner's book, with an assist from George C. Wolfe's inventive direction, presents Caroline's workaday world in a novel, if slightly precious, way. That drudgery comes alive in the basement of her white employer's home, where the washer, the dryer and a radio (in the form of as a 1960s girl group) come to life.
It's in this basement where Caroline forms a bond with young Noah, played with remarkable ease by Harrison Chad, and it's where their relationship falls apart.
The lad's stepmother (the tremulous, appealing Veanne Cox) tells the maid she can keep any change she finds in the boy's pockets while doing the laundry. At first Caroline resists, but things get serious when she finds $20 and thinks of what she could do with that money for her own children.
Noah, too, is unhappy. Besides the insecure stepmother, he has an emotionally distant father (David Costabile) still grieving about the death of the first wife.
Caroline's children also have their problems, chafing under their mother's tough love. Daughter Emmie, in particular, represents the future, impatient to make those changes that are implied in the show's title. A lovely Anika Noni Rose, who plays Emmie, has a beautiful voice and impeccable diction, which means you can hear every word.
The show looks better in an elegant Broadway theater than in the sterile space where it played at the Public Theater downtown. The domestic settings designed by Riccardo Hernandez are simple but effective. They stand in contrast to the brief yet exotic appearances by the production's most puzzling character, the moon, artfully sung by Aisha de Haas.
This celestial creature presides over the musical's more tender moments and serves as an other worldly messenger of sorts. "Change come fast and change come slow, but change come, Caroline Thibodeaux," the moon solemnly tells the show's heroine at one point. This sermonizing in song perfectly captures what "Caroline, or Change" is all about.
Changes have been made in Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori's "Caroline, or Change" on its move to Broadway, but the quasi-operatic musical is no less dreary than it was downtown.
At heart, "Caroline" would make a wonderful after-school TV special.
The story is doubtless autobiographical. It is about a little Jewish boy named Noah in 1963 New Orleans whose mother has died.
His father is distant. His stepmother, Rose, tries too hard to win him over. He appears to have no friends his own age. And his closest confidante is the family maid, Caroline.
The word "change" in the title refers to the fact that 1963 was indeed a period of great change in race relations.
But change, in another sense of the word, is the nub of the story.
Noah has the habit of leaving loose change in the pockets of his clothes - the ones Caroline must clean for him.
To teach him the value of money, Rose instructs Caroline to keep whatever she finds.
With some misgivings, she does.
When she decides to keep a $20 bill Noah has been given by his obnoxious stepgrandfather, the boy hurls a racist insult at her. She responds in kind.
"Caroline, or Change" is a telling little story. But not content to tell it straightforwardly, Kushner tricks it out with all sorts of fantasizing. All the inanimate objects, for example - the washing machine, the dryer, a bus – are portrayed by singers. The radio is sung by a Motown-like trio. There's even a lady in the moon.
Yet none of this really adds anything to the basic story. Nor does it help that Kushner makes all - but one - of the characters as antipathetic as possible: The boy's father is irritatingly uncommunicative, Rose is tiresomely solicitous, the grandparents are Jewish cliches.
Even Caroline is an annoyingly impassive, slightly sullen woman. Only her daughter, Emmie, who represents a new, bold, aggressive generation, is presented in a positive light. (Not surprisingly, Anika Noni Rose, who plays her, is the most appealing person on the stage.)
Tonya Pinkins puts her considerable talent to work as Caroline, but the material is too unfocused to repay her efforts. There is something commendable about not casting too cute a child as Noah, but the oddly charmless Harrison Chad goes too far in the other direction. Leon G. Thomas 3rd and Marcus Carl Franklin, who play Caroline's little boys, fairly steal the show.
Veanne Cox does beautifully as Rose, and Larry Keith projects ail the obnoxiousness of her father.
The show is almost entirely sung, but Tesori's score, aiming for a conversational quality, is mostly listless.
There is one powerful visual moment when Caroline, in her Sunday church clothes, passes the three radio girls in their sassy finery going in the other direction. This contrast between two generations is far more telling than anything in the long, tedious evening.
There is a tricky indecisiveness about the title of Tony Kushner's "Caroline, or Change," which opened last night at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. Does Kushner want to call it "Caroline" or does he want to call it "Change"?
This same indecisiveness runs through the entire chamber-opera, which features a lot of admirable moral intentions sweatily pursuing artistic fulfillment. The result seems unnecessarily pretentious and emotionally chilly.
And this chill comes despite elegantly smooth staging by George C. Wolfe, plus an exceptionally powerful cast led by the smoldering Tonya Pinkins as Caroline.
But the streak of cold ambiguity, running through the show like a tear in its fabric, is only one of the two major flaws in "Caroline, or Change" - and, to put you out of your suspense, the other is Jeanine Tesori's tenuous score, but more on that later.
Kushner's story, presumably in part autobiographical, is a very simple anecdote - one of those cute little twisty tales that certain Southern writers have made into a genre - about money and the wicked role it plays in the social structure.
And here - because this is true grits and Southern ham - money is colored with race, construed as forming the big divide between white and black. The time, not incidentally, is November/December 1963.
Noah (Harrison Chad) is an 8-year-old Jewish kid growing up in Louisiana with his father, a quite recently widowed professional clarinetist (David Costabile), and his stepmother, Rose (Veanne Cox).
However - sentimental shades of "The Member of the Wedding" - Chad finds a more acceptable mother-substitute in the family's stolid, uncomplaining maid, Caroline (Pinkins), whose one daily cigarette he ritually gets to light.
Noah has a habit of leaving change in the pockets of his pants before throwing them out to be laundered by Caroline.
This so annoys Rose - who not only wants to win the boy's love but, also, to teach him the value of money - that she decrees that all such change should become the property of the hard-working, church-going Caroline, a single mother of four.
Caroline needs the money but is reluctant to take from a child. Then comes Hanukkah, and Noah is given a $20 bill. Yep, he leaves it - a large sum of money for Caroline - in his pants. Crisis time!
Of course, apart from the change left by Noah, there is also, and this is meant to be Kushner's trump card, the other change left by history.
It's 1963! Civil rights is on the agenda - a statue of a Confederate soldier has just been pulled down in front of the Town Hall. Then JFK is assassinated, and hopes might be deferred.
Caroline learns the news from an anthropomorphic bus (the estimable Chuck Cooper). Talking buses would never surprise her, for Caroline shares her employers' basement with an anthropomorphic radio (a Supremes-like trio), an anthropomorphic washing machine and anthropomorphic dryer.
All this sense of the world on the cusp of a revolution is meant to give that trivial little fable about the spoiled Jewish kid and his loose change an epic relevance to its time. Baloney.
Then there is the music.
It appears that most of Kushner's libretto was written for an unproduced opera before being handed to Tesori, who has devised a drearily pastiche score situated in that tempting gray area between opera and Broadway and running some kind of eclectic gamut from there and back.
Pinkins' wonderfully layered portrait, ornery, almost tormented, conveys pain, bitterness, courage and an overwhelming decency. Almost as good are Cox as the foolish, good-natured archetypal Jewish stepmother and a vivid, vibrant Anika Noni Rose as Caroline's daughter.
But the essentials for either a musical or an opera are music and drama. "Caroline" comes up short on both.
Fantasies of life behind the scenes of Broadway musicals don't usually include a director's exclaiming in rehearsals to his leading lady: ''C'mon baby, give me weary. Sell those tired bones of yours.'' But watching Tonya Pinkins's performance in Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori's ''Caroline, or Change,'' which opened last night at the Eugene O'Neill Theater, you may find your mind wandering into just such speculation.
''Caroline'' is the solemn singing show with a social conscience that became a downtown hit last winter at the Public Theater with Ms. Pinkins in the title role of a stoical, worn-out maid for a Jewish family in the segregationist South of 1963. Now Ms. Pinkins finds herself having to win over midtown audiences who prefer their musical stars brassy, outgoing and panting to please.
It is a relief to report that under the direction of George C. Wolfe, Ms. Pinkins's artful study in passive aggression still reads piercingly clear. Who else, after all, stops a show these days with a long, measured ballad of self-reproach, resentment and resignation in which the singer never smiles?
If her somber facial expression rarely changes, Ms. Pinkins's iridescent voice evokes a seething, swirling interior life. She remains the ideal conduit for the mood-switching restlessness of Ms. Tesori's collage of a score, in which anthropomorphic household appliances provide Motown-style backup to Caroline's thoughts.
Overall ''Caroline'' is what ''Caroline'' was, befitting a work with a heroine most notable for her refusal to compromise or, to use the word of the moment, change. Aside from some slight restaging and rescaling of Riccardo Hernández's set to focus the characters' songs of introspection, this is still last winter's model. If anything, seeing this marginally more luxurious version made me think that ''Caroline'' might be most effective if it had the full courage of its austere convictions, with a more spartan staging and less literal-minded scenery.
Of course then Broadway theatergoers would really stay away. As it is, this admirably even-handed study in social economics, in which loose change in a boy's pockets becomes a force of domestic misery, is quite brave enough. Who but Mr. Kushner, the author of the dazzling (and infinitely more involving) ''Angels in America,'' would dare to set the lessons of historical materialism to music?
While this approach tends to keep audiences at a Brechtian distance, the fine performers all invest their characters with compensatory, precise emotional weight. (The new cast members are Aisha de Haas as the all-seeing Moon and Leon G. Thomas III as one of Caroline's children.)
Harrison Chad is still spot-on as the sly, sad, motherless boy who worships the family maid. And as Caroline's rebellious teenage daughter, the enchanting Anika Noni Rose injects a welcome breeze of fresh life, deliberately at odds with the unbending nature of Caroline and the show in which she appears.
Before "Caroline, or Change" opened at the Public Theater last November, there were tantalizing expectations of creative boundaries broken and political sensibilities challenged.
This was not merely the first musical with book and lyrics by Tony Kushner, but his first work with director George C. Wolfe since the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Angels in America" changed Broadway in 1992. What's more, the score came from Jeanine Tesori, one of the brightest of the theater's bright new voices, returning to a more personal challenge after the utilitarian demands of Broadway's "Thoroughly Modern Millie."
The result, alas, was an honorable but bland piece of tasteful social conscience - full of decency and purpose, but short of the originality and urgency anticipated from such a deeply provocative, high-flying team.
"Caroline" moved to Broadway's Eugene O'Neill Theatre last night, and how we'd love to be able to change sides in the conflicting passions generated by the show. For all its intelligence and occasional bits of off-center musical surprise, however, this remains an almost shockingly ordinary, middle-of-the-road work about the impotent rage of a black maid named Caroline - the magnificently wary Tonya Pinkins - trapped in a reality beyond the seismic effects of the civil rights movement.
This is dignified, well-meaning stuff, liberal in the way radicals from the left once used the word to mean too soft to matter. Although the show's admirers have called it a breakthrough in form and content, we can't help but think of a musical version of "I'll Fly Away," the early '90s TV series about a black maid in the late '50s.
One is tempted to conclude that this collaboration worked too well, that the individuality of Kushner, Tesori and Wolfe has melded into a fourth voice - different together but lacking each one's singularity.
Yes, Caroline's world in the basement of a Jewish family in Louisiana comes alive like a musical pop-up fantasy book of the psyche, with a social-agitating washing machine (Capathia Jenkins), a disruptive dryer (Chuck Cooper) and a Greek-chorus of a radio personified by a Motown trio - think "Hairspray" by way of "Little Shop of Horrors" - slinking above the basement in Paul Tazewell's glamour-girl costumes. How extraordinary one finds this idea depends, perhaps, on one's memory of the performing cutlery in "Beauty and the Beast."
Kushner's writing, the voice of his mind, has always made its own music. Some ideas in the story, based in part on his own childhood, are as uncompromised as ever. As lyrics in Tesori's virtually sung-through pastiche, however, his poetry feels almost as imprisoned by song styles as Caroline is by disappointment.
The cast is extraordinary, especially Anika Noni Rose as Caroline's independent daughter and Chandra Wilson as her politically evolving friend. And Pinkins has grown even more devastating in the icy, sulky power of a woman who still, in private moments, begs, "Don't let my sorrow turn evil on me."
The change has two meanings - the obvious one and the kind that falls loose from the pockets of an 8-year-old (Harrison Chad) when his adored maid does laundry. This Jewish family, confused by the assumptions of class, race, religion and the shame of entitlement, includes a father (David Costabile), escaping the pain of his wife's recent cancer death through his clarinet. Veanne Cox is blissfully virtuosic as the new wife, juggling psychological contradictions.
Tesori's music includes a graceful mix of soul, klezmer and even kids' jump-rope songs. The harmonies are ravishing, but the rhymes can be painful (house and mouse, dry and high). And what about the harping on the evils of cigarettes? There were many reasons to feel guilty in 1963, but smoking was not yet one of them.
The competition for best new musical at this year's Tony Awards just got a little stiffer.
In a season that could pose the most substantive race in this category in years, Caroline, or Change (* * * 1/2 out of four) might be considered icing on the cake.
But that metaphor doesn't suggest the depths of emotion and thoughtfulness manifest in Caroline, which opened Sunday at Broadway's Eugene O'Neill Theatre after an acclaimed run at the Public Theater last fall.
Written by Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner with music by Jeanine Tesori and inspired by Kushner's experiences growing up in Louisiana, Caroline traces the relationship between a Jewish boy and his family's black maid, who have more in common than superficial circumstances suggest. "That sorrow deep inside you, it's inside me, too," the maid, Caroline, sings to the boy, Noah, at one point. “And it never go away."
But Kushner's libretto and lyrics never get mired in the alienation and oppression that they duly acknowledge.
Caroline is, like Angels, ultimately a celebration of human fortitude, of the vast resources of love and hope that allow people of all backgrounds and belief systems to transcend hatred and despair.
It's a message that seems especially poignant in our times, and Angels alumnus George C. Wolfe's brisk, vibrant direction ensures that its meaning is fully captured. Granted, leading lady Tonya Pinkins probably didn't require a lot of coaching; her Caroline is a miraculous force of nature, capable of conveying faith and fury, longing and remorse with equal intensity.
Harrison Chad's Noah can have the overeager quality of a child bred for the footlights. But he handles the character's tender moments with surprising sensitivity, and he finesses Tesori's warm but often complex melodies -which evoke influences from Motown to klezmer to Kurt Weill -with unaffected assurance.
Veanne Cox lends texture and heart to the role of Noah's stepmother, whose shrill, stuffy demeanor can belie her decency and vulnerability. Larry Keith is funny and touching as her father, who embodies the passion for social reform that bonded many Jews and blacks in the early '60s when Caroline takes place. And Chandra Wilson is similarly sassy as Caroline's forward-thinking friend.
But the character who best embodies the show's progressive, indomitable spirit is Caroline's daughter, Emmie, played with breathless vitality by Anika Noni Rose.
"Change come fast and change come slow," she sings in an epilogue, echoing a central refrain, "but everything changes."
Were more modern musicals as bold and winning as Caroline, or Change, I would share her optimism for the future.
It may enshrine the word "change" in its title, but Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori's new musical, now on Broadway, is essentially a study in stasis. It is not a tale of emotional and social transformations but of the tensions that precede them, the people that resist or elude them. It's a telling snapshot of a particular time and place, focusing with sharp clarity on characters captured at a fraught turning point in history -- a culture's and a family's. It offers the satisfactions of fine photography -- handsome composition, interesting detail, an evocative use of shadow. But these are not precisely the strengths most of us look for in musicals. Musicals we expect to move, and to move us. "Caroline, or Change," for all its intelligence and its eloquence, is short on feeling, and on drama.
There are, to be sure, many mobile elements in George C. Wolfe's production, which has been subtly polished for Broadway. It is a model of cogency and integration, knitting together the many strands of Kushner's book with maximum efficiency on sets by Riccardo Hernandez that leave plenty of dark space for the world of the imagination, where some of the musical's more emotionally potent encounters occur. The acting is excellent, the singing still better.
Tesori's score has a smooth and subtle locomotion. She samples a wide spectrum of musical styles with fluidity and unforced grace. Musical colors are deftly matched to character and mood: Caroline Thibodeaux (Tonya Pinkins), the embittered maid who is the musical's central character, communicates in dark, rumbling riffs that proclaim the disappointments that dog her spirit. Only in a flashback to happier days does her music move to the spirited rhythms that almost always accompany the musings of her exuberant teenage daughter, Emmie (the vibrant Anika Noni Rose). Emmie bounces to the sound of a changing world that frightens Caroline into fearful scorn.
Caroline's employer, Rose Stopnick (Veanne Cox), has her own musical language, too, shorn of sustained melody to reflect the tangle of anxieties that beset and distract her. These involve her moody maid, who rebuffs Rose's friendly offering of a cabbage-and-corned beef casserole ("My kids don't like it. Turn they noses up"); her moody husband Stuart (David Costabile), who has withdrawn from the marriage to play a mournful duet with his clarinet; and her moody stepson Noah (Harrison Chad), who still misses his dead mother, and has forged an odd emotional bond with Caroline. It is odd because, aside from letting him light her daily cigarette, she takes no interest in his puppyish affection. (Repeat viewings of "Caroline" -- the Broadway visit was this critic's third -- inspire growing affection for the put-upon Rose, and for Cox's bright, funny performance; somewhere inside "Caroline, or Change" is another musical striving to break free: "Rose, or Tsuris.")
Rose's attempt to curb Noah's carelessness with his money -- she tells Caroline to keep any change she finds in his pockets when doing the laundry -- sets in motion a series of events that will threaten to rupture the uneasy truce that exists among the musical's emotionally isolated but interdependent characters, yoked together by economic necessity in 1963 Louisiana. But this development doesn't prove to be the catalyst that sets these characters along unexpected paths; it merely darkens and deepens the established contours of their relationships, and underscores the economic deprivation that has poisoned Caroline's spirit.
"All changes come from small changes," sings the Supremes-like chorus in the opening scene of the second act. But the only progress charted by Caroline is of a sad and dubious kind; change, for Caroline, is only for the worse. She begins taking home the quarters and dimes to give her kids a much-needed treat, but when Noah leaves a $20 bill in his pocket, the conflict leads to a confrontation in which hateful words are exchanged.
It is an ugly moment, but an oddly unmoving one -- Kushner is so scrupulous in refusing to sentimentalize the relationship between Caroline and Noah, ostensibly the focus of the musical, that there isn't much to be sundered. (And Caroline's tongue has been so persistently sharp that her outburst of anti-Semitism isn't quite the shock it might be.) Caroline's subsequent song of self-flagellation is similarly a big moment -- splendidly delivered in Pinkins' quietly forceful performance -- that is more an intellectual than an emotional occasion for the audience.
Caroline repudiates the hate that has burst from her heart at the prospect of even a small financial windfall. But she renounces hope with it, too: "Some folks do all kinds of things/and black folks someday live like kings/and someday sunshine shine all day ... but not for me, not not for me!" Only her children will reap the benefits of the coming changes. It is Emmie, a subsidiary character, who closes the musical on its note of uplift.
As is to be expected from Kushner, "Caroline, or Change" is acute in its analysis of a complicated social ecosystem. It is smart and often witty, too, in its observation of the wary, rarely explored interaction between liberal Jewish culture of the 1960s and the black culture of the South. But it's hard to shake the sense that the musical is more successful at dissecting social dynamics than bringing to full theatrical life the human beings caught up in them.
In truth, to this observer, the character of Caroline almost seems to have been distorted by the unflinching clarity of the author's gaze: Kushner is careful to bring forth for our understanding the forces that have shaped Caroline -- that have broken her spirit -- but he's left a vital element out of her character, one that leaves an emotional hole at the center of his musical: a heart.