Off-Off-Broadway, Musical Revival
Runs through 2.21.10
Gallery Players Theatre, 199 14th Street, Brooklyn
BOTTOM LINE: Brilliant material, and a production that does the company proud. If you haven't seen this musical, you should.
Caroline, or Change is one of the best musicals of the past thirty years. But it is not a popular musical - yet. This is partly because it is not an easy musical. If you aren't familiar with the score, you won't walk out humming any songs (although once you've heard it a few times, the music enters your body like nothing else I know. Thank god the original recording has the entire show). There aren't many huge dance numbers. And there is no wailing diva every 15 seconds. So if you are looking for a fun, mindless musical, go see Mamma Mia (and if you want a mindless one about racial politics, there's Memphis.) But for those who think most musicals are too lightweight, or for anyone who is truly invested in the modern American musical, Caroline, or Change is a must-see.
There is a lot to Caroline, or Change, and to simplify the story too much does the entire show a disservice. But essentially, Caroline is a "Negro" maid working for the Gellmans, a Jewish family in Lake Charles, Louisiana, where the only "underground is underwater" (yes, this was written shortly before Hurricane Katrina. Writer Tony Kushner is kind of amazing that way.) Caroline, a divorcee, does not like her job, but tolerates it as the sole provider for her four children (the oldest is fighting in Vietnam). 10-year old Noah Gellman keeps forgetting to take his coins out before putting his pants in the laundry, so Noah's new step-mother Rose tells Caroline she should take home whatever change she finds. Initially reluctant, Caroline soon succumbs to this (somewhat distasteful) way to increase her income. There's also Caroline's rebellious older daughter and her forward-thinking friend Dotty, Noah's distant and grief-stricken father, and Rose's interfering and socialist-minded father, who comes to visit for Hanukkah.
Caroline, or Change also brings to life the non-human players in Caroline's environment - the washer and dryer, the radio, the bus, and the moon. No, this is not like Beauty and the Beast - the people playing these roles are dressed as people, not objects. These characters function alternatively as narrators, Greek chorus, and Caroline's inner dialogue. In this production (as opposed to the original on Broadway), Caroline interacts more with these characters: almost talking directly to them, and even touching them occasionally. I might be wrong, but I don't remember this in the original; it is one example of director Jeremy Gold Kronenberg's subtle touches. However, Kronenberg wisely refrains from doing anything too overt; he understands the brilliance of this show, and largely lets the material speak for itself.
This is a difficult piece for any company, especially an off-off-Broadway one. So it is not surprising that this is a very uneven production. Some of the performers overact, rather than create a character. At times I thought the movement was over-choreographed. And some of the voices are not very strong. You can hear every lyric, and the voices seem fairly balanced with the off-stage orchestra, but I wanted the entire sound level to be louder for almost the entire show. But I liked the rest of the design. The set is elegant and the lighting subtly directs the audience's attention from one part of the stage to another, but without being obvious. Some of the costumes look a bit too "new" or "nice" for some of the characters, but hey, this is off-off-Broadway.
Indeed, the positives FAR outweigh the negatives. Marcie Henderson is wonderfully sensual as The Washing Machine. Frank Viveros, who has one of the best voices in the production, is thrillingly sinister as The Dryer, and achingly mournful as The Bus, who arrives with very bad news (hint: this is the end of November, 1963). Peter Gantenbein plays Noah's father Stuart, one of the less showier roles; Gantenbein showed me new elements of Stuart that I had previously missed, and even made me tear up in his song on the stair in Act 2. And Teisha Duncan is amazing as Caroline Thibodeaux. Duncan has big shoes to fill - the role was created by Tonya Pinkins, who (cough cough) should have won a Tony instead of Idina Menzel (for Wicked). Caroline is a role that is easy to mess up. One must have disciplined control, intensity, and a powerful voice that can carry an entire musical. Duncan has all of this, and especially after her astonishing performance of "Lot's Wife" (the show's big 11 o'clock number), I can confidently say that Duncan is giving one of the best musical performances I have ever seen on an off-off-Broadway stage.
Ok, so if it wasn't obvious, I'm a HUGE fan of Caroline, or Change. I know the entire score, word for word. Realizing that I was hardly an impartial observer, I brought two people with me who knew nothing about the show. One is a big musical fan; he appreciated the show, and was glad he went, but he wasn't in love with the music. He didn't think there were enough recurring melodies to really stick with you. And I get this; I saw the original production twice and only really loved it after listening to the recording several more times. The other person is NOT big on musicals, although I drag him when I can. He REALLY enjoyed Caroline, or Change. He was pleasantly surprised at the complex treatment of race and class, and told me afterwards that he would never have expected that from a musical. And he told me that he has continued thinking about it for days afterward. And I agree - Caroline, or Change is a musical that stays with you. For a long time.
(Caroline, or Change plays at the Gallery Players Theatre, 199 West 14th Street, between 4th and 5th Avenues, in Brooklyn, through February 21, 2010. Performances are Thursday at 8pm, Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm and 8pm and Sunday at 3pm. There is no 2pm performance on Sat 2/6. Tickets are $18; Seniors and kids under 12 are $14. Running time is approximately two and a half hours. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit galleryplayers.com, or call 212.352.3101.)