The Musical Stage Company and Obsidian Theatre present Caroline, Or Change, a musical set in 1960s Louisiana during the Civil Rights era. Tony Kushner’s book and lyrics play cleverly on the varied meanings of change and elegantly weave magic realism into this grounded period drama. Jeanine Tesori’s music is a thrilling blend of styles that takes us from Motown to Jewish klezmer without any of it feeling incongruous.
Caroline (Jully Black), a divorced Black mother of three, works as a maid for the Gellmans, a progressive Jewish family. While doing the laundry in their hot basement, she is regularly visited by the inquisitive, eight-year-old Noah (Evan LeFeuvre). Though her tough persona survival strategy makes her seem harsh and unfriendly, he is drawn to her and recognizes, even through his young eyes, her quiet power.
In an attempt to teach Noah to appreciate money—and slyly help Caroline financially—Noah’s stepmom, Rose (Deborah Hay), makes it clear to Caroline that she can keep whatever coins she finds left in Noah’s pockets. When this money becomes more significant than just spare change, tensions flare and both Caroline and Noah reveal their capacity for cruelty.
The story is deceptively simple in its honest, clear-eyed look at the imperfect humanity in each of its characters. As they grapple with issues of class and race during a time of social turbulence, their ideals and idiosyncrasies frequently clash, yet each and every one of them has a generous heart. There are no heroes or villains here, no pat answers, just real people doing the best they can. Through it all, their genuine compassion and understanding gives the story a believable optimism.
With great poise, Black conveys the many conflicting emotions that Caroline, a God-fearing woman of few words, keeps tightly bottled up. Even in dignified silence, her presence demands attention. When Caroline’s pain and rage finally rise to the surface during her stirring second-act number, the force of it is truly stunning. She gives visceral reality to the song’s core theme of finding empowerment in determined and purposeful humility.
Hay’s neurotic Rose is hilarious and deeply touching. As Caroline’s outspoken daughter, Emmie, Vanessa Sears is another highlight. There are moments between her and Black that perfectly capture how generational differences in perspective can strain even deeply loving relationships.
Michael Gianfrancesco’s set presents the Gellman house as a multi-level framework against a massive clapboard fence. Under Kimberly Purtell’s lighting, these familiar domestic structures shift from safe and cosy to ominous and oppressive. A giant moon looms constantly over all, a luminous reminder of the characters’ hope as they struggle below.
News of the Kennedy assassination provides a vivid backdrop for this tale of small lives set against massive social upheaval. Director Robert McQueen’s staging delivers brash Broadway spectacle without sacrificing the intimate character dynamics that make this musical so richly compelling. Even when washing machines and radios are whimsically personified with sequins and jazz hands, Caroline, Or Change feels weighty and authentic.