Review: Caroline, or Change
30 January 2012 No CommentsCaroline, or Change
Book & Lyrics by Tony Kushner
Music by Jeanine Tesori
Produced by Acting Up Stage Company in association with Obsidian Theatre Company
Continues at the Berkeley Street Theatre to February 12, 2012
By Anya Wassenberg
Put your faith – and clothes – in me
Caroline the maid is down in the basement doing laundry and the washing machine is a singer in a satin gown and sparkly jewellery. As she turns on the radio, it becomes a trio of ladies in hot fuchsia pink singing in Supremes-style harmony. When the clothes are done washing, the dryer is a sexy male crooner. In the middle of it all, unsmiling, Caroline tends to the family’s clothes. You know you’re in a Tony Kushner musical when…
The play between the mundane and the whimsical is one of many contrasts that animate the story in this Tony-nominated musical. The solitary life of Noah Gellman (Michael Levinson), the child in the Jewish family who lives upstairs, contrasts with the warmer familiarity of Caroline’s brood of three, the comfortable middle-class household vs. the struggles of a single mother – among others.
Change come fast, change come slow. Even the “change” of the title takes on several dimensions in this story that takes place on the weekend in 1963 that JFK was shot. It centres on Noah, struggling with a distant father and new stepmother along with Caroline as a 39-year-old divorcee with four children and a $30 a week wage. When Noah starts to leave his change in his pockets and well-meaning step mom Rose (Deborah Hay) suggests that Caroline keep it to teach him a lesson, it sets off a downward spiral in the life of the glum and humourless woman who’s sacrificed so much just to survive.
Kushner’s book and lyrics add politics and social commentary to the mix. Our almost friend is gone away sings Dotty, Caroline’s friend and a fellow maid, as JFK’s legacy is seen through various eyes. Caroline’s oldest daughter Emmie (Sabryn Rock) adds to her grief with a revolutionary spirit and talk of rights she never had the opportunity to claim.
Flashes of clever humour illuminate what is essentially a story about loss, and not entirely an upbeat one at that. The real highlights are the engaging and melodic score and an overall sparkling performance from a very talented cast. Various musical styles converge in this piece, including gospel, RnB and soul. The set design ingeniously recreates the three levels of the house, furnished with period furniture and household items. Meticulously detailed costumes add a sophisticated visual appeal to the production.
Arlene Duncan is a stand out as Caroline, making her sympathetic even as her character is sullen and disappointed with her lot in life. She gets by on a kind of grim autopilot, and we get why in her multi-dimensional portrayal. She adds a powerful and expressive voice to her acting ability. There were no weak links musically from vocals to musical direction and the live band.
Tony Kushner has said in interviews that this is his most autobiographical piece; he grew up in the South with an African American maid for whom Caroline is dedicated. This production is a Canadian premiere.
Direction: Robert McQueen
Music Direction: Reza Jacobs
Choreography: Tim French
Featuring: Arlene Duncan, Neema Bickersteth, Jewelle Blackman, Deborah Hay, Alana Hibbert, Sterling Jarvis, Kaya Joubert Johnson, Londa Larmond, Michael Levinson, Cameron MacDuffee, Mary Pitt, Nicholas Rice, Derrick Roberts, Sabryn Rock & Shawn Wright
Orchestra: Karen Graves (violin), Brendan Cassidy (clarinet/sax), Reza Jacobs (keyboards), David MacDougall (percussion) & Erik Patterson (guitar/bass)
Find out more online: www.canadianstage.com
Over the phone: 416-368-3110.