Moonbox's "Caroline, or Change": Magical Stealism?

Yewande Odetoyinbo & Ben Choi-Harris in "Caroline, or Change"
(photo: Sharman Altshuler)

Quick! How many shows could you name that, though soundly based in times fraught with anxiety, feature singing household appliances? That would be one, namely Caroline, or Change, the acclaimed 2004 Broadway musical by Tony Kushner (Book and Lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (Music), nominated for six Tonys and six Olivier Awards, now the astoundingly brilliant production by Moonbox at the Boston Center for the Arts in the Wimberly Theatre in the South End. It was in many ways a breakthrough concept back then, with its mixture of reality and fantasy and its through-composed nature, and it remains so with every revisit to the piece. The scope of its dozen scenes and musical numbers (a staggering fifty-three) are still remarkable, ranging from folk musical to classical, spiritual, Motown and even klezmer; its lyrics are revelatory even on one's fifth experience with this work, as it remains perhaps the most significant and successful use of magical realism in musical theater. And with each viewing (this critic's fifth, from Off-Broadway to Broadway to Minneapolis to SpeakEasy in Boston) it grows on you.

Pier Lamia Porter, Davron S. Monroe, Ywande Odetoyinbo, Lovely Hoffman, Maria Hendricks
& Aliyah Harris in "Caroline, or Change"
(photo: Sharman Altshuler) 

The story takes place in 1963 in Lake Charles, Louisiana in the home of the rich Jewish Gellman family, where their maid Caroline Thibodeaux (Yewande Odetoyinbo, who also provided the choreography), earns a mere thirty dollars a week after cleaning homes for two decades, spends most of her time in the basement laundry, where her only companions are the hum of the washer (Pier Lamia Porter, who also plays the Moon), the heat of the dryer (Davron S. Monroe, who also plays the Bus), and the croon of the Radio (Aliyah Harris, Maria Hendricks and Lovely Hoffman). And, occasionally, Noah (Ben Choi-Harris), the eight-year-old son of his late mother and his distant, still grieving father Stuart (Robert Orzalli). The other family members are his unhappy Stepmother Rose Stopnick Gellman (Sarah Kornfeld), whom Noah hates, Grandpa Gellman (Kevin C. Groppe), Grandma Gellman (Ellen Peterson), and Mr. Stopnick (Phil Thompson). Caroline has one friend, Dotty Moffett (Lyndsay Allyn Cox) with whom she argues about their differing lifestyles and the recent destruction of a statue of a Confederate soldier and the assassination of President Kennedy. Meanwhile, to teach Noah a lesson about money, Rose tells him that any change Caroline finds in his laundry will belong to her. Caroline hates the concept of keeping the pocket change, but feels she has no choice, given that she is a single mother of Emmie (Kira Troilo), Joe (Razan Mohamed) and Jackie (Mark Johnson). Noah begins intentionally leaving his spare change in his pockets, leading almost inevitably to an existential crisis.

Kira Troilo, Mark Johnson, Razan Mohamed & Ben Choi-Harris in "Caroline, or Change"
(photo: Sharman Altshuler)

Rose hires Dotty and Emmie to help serve the family Chanukah party, where Emmie argues with Mr. Stopnick about the late President. Stopnick gives Noah a twenty dollar bill for the holiday, and Noah (accidentally, this time) leaves it in with his laundry. Caroline tells him she found the money and they argue about to whom it should belong, and whether Caroline is guilty of stealing. She leaves and does not appear for work for five days, until she comes to the realization that all that money brings is greed and hatefulness. Noah in the meantime has allowed Rose to put him to bed with a kiss. When Caroline returns, she promises Noah they will be back to normal again, eventually, while Emmie reveals more about the statue's destruction, the pride she feels as the daughter of a hard-working mother who is a maid, and her intent to devote herself to greater causes, hoping that her own future children will have a better life.

The libretto for Caroline, or Change is full (some might say overly so) of metaphorical allusions, starting with the title, which references the literal pocket coinage as well as the forces of change accumulating like storm clouds, or the image of working “underwater” (both literally and figuratively) in a locale like Lake Charles where the water table isn't famous for favoring cellars. The Original Broadway Cast CD was released in a two-disc version, and with good reason. There are no wasted musical numbers or arias, and there are a lot of them, including a spectacular eleven o'clock number by Odetoyinbo (Lot's Wife) that raises the proverbial roof in a magnificent portrayal, as does Troilo shortly afterwards. And as superbly Directed by Allison Olivia Choat (it's a labor of love for her, and it shows), with stunning Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland, playful Costume Design by Joelle Fontaine, fine Lighting Design by Jeffrey E. Salzberg, perfect Sound Design by David Wilson, and expert Musical Direction by Dan Rodriguez, this production is a real treat, whether it's one's first exposure to it or the fifth.

Yewande Odetoyinbo in "Caroline, or Change"
(photo: Sherman Altshuler)

The play is truly unique, as in “one of a kind”, with its tight, taut and terrific interplay between music and poetry. Most of the characters have roles in presenting contemporary issues, from Mr. Stopnick's “a face knows it's no footrest regardless of religion or race”, or Emmie's “change come fast and change come slow but everything changes”, or Noah's “what's underwater like?”, or Caroline's plea, “don't let my sorrow make evil of me”. As Director Choat notes in the program, we are still today judged for the way we were born, defined by the work we do, and, like Caroline, struggle to bend. What happens to her and her family if she changes, no one can know, not even Caroline, but we can sense the change her stillness begins.

By all means, drop by between now and May 11th. Come on in, the (under)water's fine.

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