Kushner roars again♦
Tony Kushner’s 2004 musical Caroline, or Change lasted less than half a year on Broadway. After seeing the Arden Theatre’s triumphant Philadelphia premiere, I can see why. Caroline is not Disney or Anglicized pop operetta, not rock and roll jukebox or a contrivance built around a star. Instead it’s a big, brooding, musically bold and socially complex political statement in the American musical tradition of ... a very short list of innovative shows: West Side Story, Carousel, Hair, and Company are a few that come to mind.
As he did with Angels in America, Kushner creates something conceptually different from the musical norm with his book and (mostly) his lyrics to Jeanine Tesori’s music. Her work brings to life the sound and roiling fury of 1963 America, when the civil-rights movement changed the world and Camelot was lost in a moment in Dallas. Their collaboration is rich: Kushner’s song-cycle polemics keep revealing depth of character and social issues, and Tesori’s music is not stylized outside of its authenticity just to fit a show.
Caroline, a black woman separated from her husband and raising three children (a fourth is in Vietnam), works as a maid for the Gellmans, a middle-class Southern Jewish family. The “change” in the title refers to Caroline’s place in the world, and specifically a moral crisis that ensues when the Gellmans’ son, eight-year old Noah, keeps leaving money in his dirty clothes.
Typically Kushner busts apart stereotypes in his portrayal of these characters— a rarity in any musical framework. Putting the image of a middle-aged black woman doing the laundry for a white family in the South at this time brings forth an avalanche of thoughts from America’s racist past; and Kushner, a singular muscular and subtle voice in the theater, tackles unfinished social issues organically through his characters. The script even offers hints that Noah (whose character is loosely-based on Kushner’s own experiences growing up in Louisiana) is a resourceful gay boy making his invisible way in a complex world.
At one point Noah’s relatives invade the house for a Chanukah celebration as Caroline, her friend Dotty and her eldest daughter Emmie prepare their meal belowstairs. When Emmie overhears some of the grandfather’s PC-rant connecting leftist views of Jewish workers from the 1930s with the civil-rights of Southern blacks, she boldly tells him he doesn’t know what he talking about regarding her struggle. Told to shut up by Caroline, the grandfather sings, "This is the first real conversation I’ve had since I’ve been in the South."
This stellar ensemble is headed by the magnificent performance of Joilet F. Harris as Caroline. Not only does she own a mighty voice, her performance is nuanced and true in every moment. The showstopper is a vocal mountain to climb called “Lot’s Wife” (“Murder me Lord/Turn me into a pillar of salt”). It’s a raw, primal scream, releasing the character emotionally and politically without going over the top.
Composer Tesori’s polyrhythmic hybrids transform 1960s formula rhythm-and-blues into soul arias that are deeply imbedded in the narrative flow, so much so that the audience gets only two or three opportunities to applaud.
James Kronzer’s outstanding production design offers a multi-tiered set that symbolizes the upstairs/downstairs racial divides as well as the divides within families. In the past, director Terrence J. Nolen has been acclaimed for his accomplished musical stagings at the Arden, especially in keeping the Arden Sondheim-relevant; but he reaches another level here with kinetic direction that’s in perfect pitch with the material.
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