Anyone who needs another lesson in the worthlessness of the Tony Awards as a badge of quality must see the new Broadway revival of Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s musical, “Caroline, or Change,” which opened Wednesday at Roundabout’s Studio 54. Back in 2004, “Wicked” and “Avenue Q” were in a fierce battle for the Best Musical Tony, even though the best musical that season was clearly “Caroline, or Change.” It didn’t have a chance with the Tony voters, as reported in “ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway,” a documentary about the 2003-04 theater season. Journalists and critics interviewed by filmmaker Dori Berinstein considered “Caroline” a downtown show that “didn’t belong on Broadway,” and even more bizarrely, they deemed its lead character, an African-American housekeeper stuck in a Louisiana basement in 1963, as “too static” in her musical journey.
Berinstein’s documentary ends with an upbeat coda, showing how “Caroline” went on to critical and popular acclaim when it toured Los Angeles, San Francisco and London, where the musical performed in larger venues that showed off its true operatic colors.
“Caroline” is now back on Broadway, where it definitely belongs, because it is one of the great musicals of this century – right up there with “The Light in the Piazza” and “Hamilton.” Critics who didn’t care for it nearly two decades ago now have a chance to reassess their opinion. They may opine that the new production, directed by Michael Longhurst (he also directed “Caroline” in the U.K.), is the definitive staging. They would be wrong. Again. The definitive production was the original, directed by George C. Wolfe.
Longhurst’s revival is strongly sung, led by the astounding vocals of Sharon D. Clarke in the title role. One of the delights of “Caroline” is watching household objects come to life in an adult musical, and it’s hard to imagine the prominent roles of the Washing Machine (Arica Jackson), the Radio (Nasia Thomas, Nya, and Harper Miles), the Moon (N’Kenge), and the Dryer and the Bus (Kevin S. McAllister) being more robustly impersonated vocally. Sitting through this “Caroline,” I often thought how superior the singing here was to the Met Opera’s new “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.”
It’s unfortunate that all this well-sung fantasy takes place on such an unattractive set, by Fly Davis, at Studio 54. Granted, much of the drama is set in a basement, with occasional trips upstairs to the home of Caroline’s employers, the Gellmans. Early in the show, the set awkwardly splits apart to make way for the Bus and other entrances, leaving a dangerous chasm between the family’s bedrooms. Later, a rainstorm descends behind the three Radio ladies, and you just hope no one gets electrocuted.
Longhurst best work comes when the Gellmans (John Cariani and Caissie Levy, being sweetly patronizing), celebrate Hanukkah with his parents (Joy Hermalyn and Stuart Zagnit), her father (Chip Zien) and their son, Noah (the accomplished child actor Adam Makke). It is Zien’s old Jewish man from New York’s West Side who acts to radicalize Caroline’s daughter, Emmie (Samantha Williams), who doesn’t need any lectures on political activism.
Caroline’s scenes with her own children (Alexander Bello, Jayden Theophile, and Williams) and best friend (Tamika Lawrence) lack that same sharp focus. Then again, Kushner doesn’t employ the same satiric edge with these characters. Is it the writing or the direction that gets a little mushy here, or both?
Wolfe gave Caroline’s scenes with her kids and friend more vitality. Also, Tonya Pinkins’ original Caroline displayed far more shades of anger. She built to that final emotionally raw confrontation with the young Noah. Clarke appears ready for lethal combat the moment we see her toiling over her first batch of dirty laundry.
A criticism of the original “Caroline” was that the heroine’s journey is static. It’s still true. She doesn’t grow or change. But that’s a misinterpretation of what Kushner and Tesori have written. It’s the children, especially Emmie, who not only change but grow up in front of our eyes to demand a better life. And it is here where Wolfe’s staging really delivered.
Williams is a strong singer, but she is an adult performer playing a teenager. The original production was blessed with Anika Noni Rose, who, at the time was in her 30s but somehow convinced us that her Emmie was all of 12 or 13. (The script describes the character as being 16.) By show’s end, Rose’s child had become a committed woman.
Fortunately, Tesori’s music has never sounded better; it begins with pastiche and builds effectively into powerful arias and ensembles. Only her recitatives with the Gellman characters turn sitcom-sounding. Kushner’s book and lyrics continue to deliver more fully realized characters than a dozen other musicals.
The current “Caroline” may be one more for the ears than the eyes, but it still very much worth seeing. “Hamilton” is the only other musical now on Broadway in its league.
Postscript: A shout-out to Roundabout for not selling concessions at Studio 54, even during intermission. Shows playing commercial Broadway theaters continue this unhealthy practice that puts ushers in the impossible position of instructing theatergoers how to consume overpriced drinks while wearing a mask.