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He Says: Roundabout’s Caroline, or Change Heats Up from Within on Broadway

He Says: Roundabout’s Caroline, or Change Heats Up from Within on Broadway

A musical about a woman who talks to the washing machine, and it sings back. Who’da thought, right? And it’s not some Disney’s Beauty and the Beast spin-off. It’s serious stuff, here. Yet, “nothing happens in Louisiana on the radio“, except here in the Roundabout Theatre Company‘s emotionally packed revival of Caroline, or Change. And all I can say is thank god it has made it over here. I saw it many years ago, maybe at the Public, where it opened on November 30, 2003, or maybe when it transferred to Broadway’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre on May 2, 2004 – I’m not quite sure – but this complex masterpiece has certainly stayed with me. Not because of a song or a melody. Definitely not because of a dance number or an infectious score. It has more to do with the way it hit, and stuck to me, emotionally, almost physically, like the Louisiana heat and humidity. It dampened our skin, and left its wet scent within the fabric of our clothes. It’s joyous and sad, angry and tense, and it made us feel something subtle but every so strong.

Nasia Thomas, Kevin S. McAllister, Harper Miles, Sharon D Clarke in Roundabout Theatre Company’s Caroline, or Change. 2021. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Back in the day, I could not have told you what it was all about, especially when I sat down last week at Studio 54. I remembered the abstractions and the personifications of simple household machines in a powerful objectification. It hit hard when it opened in New York City in 2003, starring the powerful Tonya Pinkins in the title role. Directed by the legendary George C. Wolfe, the musical, with book and lyrics by Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and music by Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home), had a short run, but was extremely well received, nominated for six Tony Awards, including Best Musical and won one for Anika Noni Rose who played Emmie Thibodeaux. I still have visions, albeit not clear ones, of that washing machine coming to life, and my body tells me I felt their power.

Caissie Levy, Sharon D Clarke in Roundabout Theatre Company’s Caroline, or Change. 2021. Photo by Joan Marcus..

The revival production at the Roundabout was set to open in 2020, and I’m sure I don’t need to explain much else. I had thought about seeing this same production of Caroline, or Change when I was in London in 2019, but I already knew it was transferring, and now I can see why. The production, starring the formidable Sharon D. Clarke (West End’s Death of a Salesman) in the titular role, is a triumph in song and spirit. Directed by the British stage director Michael Longhurst (Broadway/West End’s Constellations) with stellar choreographing by Ann Yee (Broadway’s Sunday in the Park…), the piece stomps and shimmies its way forward, never giving in to the big easy, but also never failing to connect and entertain. It is a historic ode, formulated by Kushner to resurrect his own upbringing memories back in Louisiana in the 1960s. It’s complicated and intuitive, breathing history and racial tension together, giving it life inside the home of a young child in a well-off Jewish household, who apparently, was drawn to the hired maid responsible for doing the laundry deep down in the basement.

To see the strong cold Caroline, powerfully embodied by Clarke standing down in the basement working hard for little pay, the scenario, with her employer and their family standing up high and far in the back, places the complicated idea of racial prejudice and white entitlement out front and center. The only one who enters the basement with any curiosity is the family’s son, Noah, portrayed beautifully [in the performance I attended] by the young Adam Makké [alternatively played by Gabriel Amoroso (BAM’s Medea) or Jaden Myles Waldman (Amazon’s “…Mrs. Maisel“)]. He’s inately drawn to her, for her strength and stoic-ness, as he personally struggles to comprehend and deal with the death of his mother, and the intense awkwardness he’s experiencing with his new step-mother, Rose Stopnick Gellman. Dynamically played by the ever-surprising Caissie Levy (Broadway’s Frozen), their engagement registers, pulling us in a myriad of different directions, all unique and well calculated by Levy and the writers. It’s tight and uncomfortable, all with no help from the distracted and distant father, Stuart Gellman, well played by John Cariani (Broadway’s The Band’s Visit). He can’t seem to help himself, as he stands awkwardly and shyly to the side, with clarinet in hand, looking sadly at his son, but can’t seem to find the courage to span the wide gulf that exists between them. It’s literally big enough to drive a bus through. 

Adam Makké, Sharon D Clarke in Roundabout Theatre Company’s Caroline, or Change. 2021. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Caroline, downstairs, toils hard, and battles the demons of her past, embodied in the masculine sailor-form of a deep-voiced dryer, portrayed with depth by Kevin S. McAllister (Ford Theatre’s Ragtime). She holds her trauma in a hard-fisted knot of pain and ache that hangs on every limb. She’s a single working mother, raging against the world at the bus stop with her modernized friend and fellow maid, Dotty, ferociously portrayed by the wonderful Tamika Lawrence (Broadway’s If/Then), and battling at home with her three children; Emmie, Jackie and Joe Thibodeaux, strongly played here by Samantha Williams (Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen), Alexander Bello (Broadway’s The Rose Tattoo), and Jayden Theophile (Broadway’s Tina) [both male parts alternatively played by Richard Alexander Phillips (FX’s “Pose“)]. The love and care fly forward from her stern hard gaze, while her exhausted frame galvanizes her heart and transfixs our gaze as we intuitively lean in to protect.

The show electrically shifts into high gear when Noah’s stepmother Rose decides to teach the boy a lesson, while casually unearthing her own blind liberal patronizing superiority of Caroline and her intrinsic value to the world. We automatically feel the discomfort and anger percolating in the heated moments within the discussion of the value of money – of a boy’s loose change, and what it might mean to a black maid in 1960s America. All Caroline wants is to be seen and valued, with a living wage and a breath of fresh air, far from the heat-inducing Washing Machine, gorgeously portrayed with exquisite bubbles by Arica Jackson (Broadway’s Head Over Heels), and the always interrupting, informing, exciting Radio, beautifully brought to life by a trio of dynamic performers; Nya, Nasia Thomas (Broadway’s Ain’t Too Proud), and Harper Miles (Bat Out of Hell).

Nasia Thomas, Kevin S. McAllister, Sharon D Clarke, Arica Jackson, Harper Miles in Roundabout Theatre Company’s Caroline, or Change. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Assisted powerfully by the talented musical supervisor, Nigel Lilley (Chishester’s South Pacific) and music director/Orchestrator, Joseph Joubert (Broadway’s The Color Purple), the rising fraught temperatures from within play out hard and intense under the watchful eye of the gorgeously voiced Moon, elegantly portrayed by the luminescent N’Kenge (Broadway’s Motown). The unfairness of the basement where Caroline sweats and labors in is where her journey forward must emit from. There is a shift, dramatic and powerful, that takes over the stage. It pulls the light away from the Jewish family, including the Gellman’s Grandma and Grandpa, portrayed by Joy Hermalyn (Baz Luhrmann’s La Bohème) and Stuart Zagnit (Broadway’s Newsies), as well as Rose’s NYC father, Mr. Stopnick, intensely portrayed by the always engaging Chip Zien (Broadway’s Into The Woods), and shines it strongly on Clarke, as she expertly navigates the cathartic route forward. It’s a must-see moment, and a thrilling climb upwards into the proverbial sky. 

On a clunky, overly-metaphoric set, with grand potent costumes, both designed by Fly Davis (West End’s The Ocean at the End…), under strong lighting by Jack Knowles (National’s Beginning) and a rainy, distracting sound design by Paul Arditti (Broadway’s The Inheritance); the traditional arc of a musical doesn’t appear to be present or as neatly structured as the emotional layers it finds inside Caroline. The fiery formulations of inequality breath out as powerfully as the radio and the washing machine sing strongly. The edge is sharp and meaningful, constructing and laying down heavy ideas based on historical disturbances in the racist structure and history of Louisiana. Its power sneaks in and heats your soul, and you’ll never look at a radio or a washing machine in the same way again. Trust me on that one.

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Broadway
@#frontmezzjunkies

My love for theater started when I first got involved in high school plays and children's theatre in London, Ontario, which led me—much to my mother’s chagrin—to study set design, directing, and arts administration at York University in Toronto. But rather than pursuing theater as a career (I did produce and design a wee bit), I became a self-proclaimed theater junkie and life-long supporter. I am not a writer by trade, but I hope to share my views and feelings about this amazing experience we are so lucky to be able to see here in NYC, and in my many trips to London, Enlgand, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and beyond. Living in London, England from 1985 to 1986, NYC since 1994, and on my numerous theatrical obsessive trips to England, I've seen as much theater as I can possibly afford. I love seeing plays. I love seeing musicals. If I had to choose between a song or a dance, I'd always pick the song. Dance—especially ballet—is pretty and all, but it doesn’t excite me as, say, Sondheim lyrics. But that being said, the dancing in West Side Story is incredible! As it seems you all love a good list, here's two. FAVORITE MUSICALS (in no particular order): Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in 2005. By far, my most favorite theatrical experience to date. Sunday in the Park with George with Jenna Russell (who made me sob hysterically each and every one of the three times I saw that production in England and here in NYC) in 2008 Spring Awakening with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in 2007 Hedwig and the Angry Inch (both off-Boadway in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014, with Neal Patrick Harris, but also with Michael C. Hall and John Cameron Mitchell, my first Hedwig and my last...so far), Next To Normal with Alice Ripley (who I wish I had seen in Side Show) in 2009 FAVORITE PLAYS (that’s more difficult—there have been so many and they are all so different): Angels in American, both on Broadway and off Lettice and Lovage with Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in 1987 Who's Afraid of Virginai Woolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in 2012 Almost everything by Alan Ayckbourn, but especially Woman in Mind with Julia McKenzie in 1986 And to round out the five, maybe Proof with Mary Louise Parker in 2000. But ask me on a different day, and I might give you a different list. These are only ten theatre moments that I will remember for years to come, until I don’t have a memory anymore. There are many more that I didn't or couldn't remember, and I hope a tremendous number more to come. Thanks for reading. And remember: read, like, share, retweet, enjoy. For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

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