Review: `Caroline or Change’

C. Kelly Wright is Caroline Thibodeaux in TheatreWorks’ Caroline, or Change (Anise Ritchie in the rear is The Moon). Photos by David Allen

TheatreWorks tackles challenging `Caroline’ with soaring results
Four stars (Rich, rewarding, moving)

I cannot imagine any other Bay Area theater company other than TheatreWorks having the guts to produce one of the most challenging – and, if done right, most rewarding – musicals ever written.

It is a testament to TheatreWorks founding artistic director Robert Kelley that he consistently programs the Bay Area’s most diverse theatrical season, complete with crusty old chestnuts and highly risky new work, plays and musicals. And his subscription base seems to go right along with him, relishing the opportunity to be pleased in ordinary ways and challenged in entirely new ways.

How else to explain the presence of Jeanine Tesori and Tony Kushner’s extraordinary musical Caroline, or Change, now running at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts? Without question, this is the most adventurous, most boundary-pushing musical to hit Broadway in a good, long time. Tesori calls it a folk opera, and she’s right. Her score sounds doesn’t sound like opera, but it has the weight of opera, though it incorporates the sounds of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s (the show is set in 1963) as well as the folk and blues sounds of Louisiana (where the show is set).

The Bay Area had a chance to see the phenomenal Broadway production of Caroline when lead producer Carole Shorenstein Hays brought it out to be part of the SHN/Best of Broadway season. It’s hard to imagine any version – let alone a regional theater production – measuring up to that superlative work.

But Kelley’s Caroline is every bit as good because it’s different enough to be its own thing. The primary difference is the intimacy of the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. The stage is big enough for a musical, but the house is small enough that you feel like you’re down in that sweltering basement (basements are unusual in Louisiana, where underground is underwater) with Caroline as she toils through the laundry of her employers, the Gellmans.

In the smaller space, you can really concentrate on the performances, which are entirely first rate, and on the score, which grows richer, more melodious and more emotionally complex with each hearing.

In the anchor role of Caroline Thibodeaux is Oakland’s C. Kelly Wright, a TheatreWorks veteran who has been away for a while but makes a welcome return to the stage in the meatiest role for a woman since Sondheim, Styne and Laurents created Mama Rose in Gypsy.

Not enough can be said about just how shattering Wright is as Caroline, the perpetually grumpy maid who says repeatedly: “I am mean, and I am tough, but $30 a week ain’t enough.” There are reasons Caroline is at odds with the world. Economics is a big part of it. She’s a divorced woman, 39 years old with four children (the eldest has been sent to Vietnam, “wherever that is,” Caroline says). She can barely read enough to find her way on a map, and she has deep, deep sorrow.

You feel every one of those sorrows in Wright’s blazing performance. Caroline’s already legendary Act 2 aria (again, it doesn’t sound like opera but there’s no better word for a song of such all-consuming emotion), “Lot’s Wife” is like a play unto itself. And Wright rises to the challenge of the piece and wallops the audience with the truest kind of hurt.

Much of Caroline is brainy and intellectual – not unlike an interesting New Yorker article – but when Kushner and Tesori decide to go for the heart, they do it in a big, beautiful way. And Wright is right there with them every step of the way.

Also giving a superb performance is 12-year-old Julian Hornik of Palo Alto. He plays Noah Gellman, and he thinks Caroline, his family’s maid, is the best thing ever. He calls her the president of the United States, imagines that she runs everything and that she’s “stronger than my dad.” Of course just about anybody is stronger than Noah’s emotionally distant, clarinet-playing dad (Ryan Drummond), who quickly got remarried after Noah’s mom died of cancer.

Hornik’s pure, sweet voice is assured beyond his years, and he handles the challenges of the score with aplomb.

Eileen Tepper is Rose, Noah’s new stepmom, who desperately wants to be a good mother in spite of the fact that Noah seems to hate her. Tepper emerges as the show’s third star with an emotionally grounded performance that aches with the character’s desperation to be good and to do the right thing.

As Kushner’s book delves into change – from the coins Noah leaves in his pants pockets that Caroline is expected to keep to the massive change sweeping the nation in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination and the rise of the Civil Rights movement – the excellent cast continually surprises and delights.

James Monroe Iglehart shows some devilish sass as Caroline’s singing and dancing dryer, but then he gets to be a dignified mourner as a bus driver who announces the death of the president. Valisia LeKae is superb as Caroline’s daughter, Emmie, who is going through her own kind of growing-up changes – changes that indicate that she would never settle for being a servant to white people.

There’s a dreamlike quality to this musical (hence the singing-and-dancing dryer and washing machine) that is captured beautifully in J.B. Wilson’s elegantly swampy set design and Pamila Gray’s firefly-enhanced lighting.

There’s so much to love about this musical and this production of it that it’s difficult to not write a dissertation about how this unusual story about an African-American woman and a Jewish-American boy at a time of cultural upheaval could only be told as a musical – as this musical.

But I won’t do that. All I can say is this: See TheatreWorks’ Caroline, or Change and open your head and open your heart.

Caroline, or Change continues through April 27 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $25-$61. Call 650-903-6000 or visit for information.

One thought on “Review: `Caroline or Change’

  1. Great review Chad. I am very excited to see this show again! Loved it in New York, then again in San Francisco, and I’m sure TheatreWorks production will be no different.

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