By Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori; Directed by Dev Bondarin
Produced by Astoria Performing Arts Center
Off Off Broadway, Musical Revival
Runs through 5.25.19
Broccoli Theater at the Variety Boys and Girls Club of Queens, 21-12 30th Road, Astoria
by Sarah Moore on 5.6.19
Lauren Singerman and LaDonna Burns in Caroline, or Change. Photo by Michael R. Dekker.
BOTTOM LINE: APAC's Caroline, or Change is a welcome reminder of this unique musical, and worth a visit to Queens.
Nothing ever happen underground in Louisiana
cause there ain’t no underground in Louisiana.
There is only underwater.
Unless, that is, you work for a family that has a basement—which Caroline Thibodeaux does. Caroline (the powerful LaDonna Burns) is a 39-year-old divorcée who works as a maid for a Jewish family—the Gellmans—in Lake Charles, Louisiana. After the death of his wife from cancer, Stuart Gellman (Scott Mendelsohn) remarries his friend Rose (Lauren Singerman). But Stuart's son Noah (a delightful Sabatino Cruz) refuses to accept her as his new mother. Instead, he puts Caroline in the maternal role, one she refuses, grumpy from having to spend most of her days in that damn basement with the washing machine, the dryer, and the radio. The appliances sing to her, by the way.
The central conflict begins when Rose tells Caroline she can keep the change she finds in the dirty clothes, in an effort to teach eight-year-old Noah about money. The change adds up to quite a bit of money for Caroline, creating a deep gulf between Caroline and her employers. While Caroline struggles with her inner turmoil at needing to take a job she hates in order to provide for her family, she's surrounded by people who have no idea what her life is like. So while Caroline doesn’t want to "rag pick," the extra money allows her to buy more for her kids. But the titular “change” is not just about nickels and quarters. It's more broadly about societal change—social, economic, and racial; the assassination of John F. Kennedy features prominently. And as much as Caroline is resistant to the huge societal uplifts that are already beginning, her teenage daughter Emmie (Sharaé Moultrie) is, unbeknownst to Caroline, an activist in the making.
First produced in New York by the Public Theater in 2003, and then on Broadway in 2004, Caroline, or Change is a small musical with a lot to say—Pulitzer Prize-winner Tony Kushner, who based the musical on his own experience growing up in Louisiana, took his libretto to (at the time future) Tony Award-winner Jeanine Tesori to write the score. While the show only won a single Tony award (for Featured Actress Anika Noni Rose), it has since landed firmly in the pantheon of great Broadway musicals. Directed by Dev Bondarin, APAC’s Caroline, or Change doesn’t have to reach far to connect to current events in 2019. The topicality is clear, and may even resonate more with audiences now than it did in 2003. It’s certainly fair to say it was ahead of its time. And with such a difficult piece, Bondarin nails it.
Housed in the Variety Boys and Girls Club’s Broccoli Theater, Bondarin creatively uses the space to create the world of Lake Charles, and wisely lets the text and music speak for itself. The choreography by Kemar Jewel is perfect for the material and the theater, and the design (set/props by Christopher Swader and Justin Swader, lighting by Danielle Verkennes, and costumes by Marissa L. Menezes) is all simple, yet attractive. The band is small yet mighty, and thanks to sound designer Kimberly S. O’Loughlin, easily heard.
Burns’ great leading performance is well matched by the entire cast, particularly her chemistry with Noah, as well as with her own children Emmie, Jackie (Milanis Clark), and Joe (Nave' Murray). Moultrie is quietly impressive, and has a beautiful and distinct singing voice; she does well in a difficult role. Marcie Henderson is memorable and entertaining as the Washing Machine, and Tony Perry has a gorgeous voice as the Dryer and the Bus. Other standouts are Nattalyee Randall as both Caroline’s friend Dotty Moffett and one third of the Radio (where Randall is joined by Amanda Bailey and Joël René, who also plays the Moon). Although these two roles aren't usually played by the same person, Randall's strong voice and stage presence made me wish she had even more stage time. And Singerman is perfect as Noah’s new stepmom Rose—anxious to be liked and feeling very out of place in the south.
Since it closed in 2004, Caroline, or Change has only had one New York revival since (a 2010 production by the Gallery Players), so APAC's production is a gem, particularly given how well this show has aged. The unsettled political environment of 2019 resonates well with that of 1963—far more, I’m sure, than the creators would have imagined fifteen years ago. Theater-goers who live in Astoria no doubt are well aware of the always reliable Astoria Performing Arts Center; for those who aren’t Queens residents, this Caroline, or Change is definitely worth the trip. Maybe fifteen years from now, we won’t still be fighting about Confederate statues.
(Caroline, or Change plays at the Broccoli Theater at the Variety Boys and Girls Club of Queens, 21-12 30th Road, Astoria through May 25, 2019. The running time is 2 hours 30 minutes with an intermission. Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 8. Tickets are $25 for adults and $20 for students and senior citizens. For tickets and more information visit apacny.org.)
Caroline, or Change is by Tony Kushner (book/lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (music). Directed by Dev Bondarin. Choreography by Kemar Jewel. Set and Prop Design by Christopher Swader and Justin Swader. Costume Design by Marissa L. Menezes. Lighting Design by Danielle Verkennes. Sound Design by Kimberly S. O'Louglin. Music Director is Minhui Lee.
The cast is Amanda Bailey, LaDonna Burns, Milanis Clark, Sabatino Cruz, Marcie Henderson, Greg Horton, Scott Mendelsohn, Sharaé Moultrie, Nave' Murray, Tony Perry, Nattalyee Randall, Joël René, Lauren Singerman, Gordon Stanley, and Navida Stein.