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.

Looking ahead: Theater ‘08 highlights

There are some theater treats heading our way in 2008. Here’s a mere sampling.

The show I’m most excited about also seems the furthest away. The national tour of the Tony Award-winning musical Spring Awakening is slated to start sometime in the second half of the year, courtesy of SHN/Best of Broadway. Spring Awakening was the best thing I saw on Broadway last year, and I eagerly anticipate the tour and the chance to hear the Duncan Sheik/Steven Sater score performed by exciting young singer/actors.

A close second on the old excitement meter is Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking, her autobiographical solo show coming to Berkeley Rep in February.

At SF Playhouse, Theresa Rebeck, a hot-hot playwright at the moment, arrives with the West Coast premiere of her The Scene starring “Melrose Place” alum (and Berkeley native) Daphne Zuniga. The show opens later this month.

At American Conservatory Theater, the most intriguing offering this spring is ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, John Ford’s Jacobean tragedy about a brother and sister who fall in love…with each other. The show begins performances in June.

TheatreWorks in Mountain View ushers in the new year with Wendy Wasserstein’s final play, Third, which begins performances next week. But the real excitement comes in April when the company mounts Caroline, or Change, the astonishing Tony Kushner-Jeanine Tesori musical.

At Berkeley’s Shotgun Players, the summer show will be Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage, but the big excitement comes at the end of the year when director Mark Jackson (Death of Meyerhold) returns to take a whack at Macbeth in December.

This summer, California Shakespeare Theater gives us some really good reasons to head into the Orinda hills: Jonathan Moscone directs Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband (July) and Timothy Near is directing Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (August).

And this one is a little iffy, but should the fates conspire, Thick Description will bring back former Bay Area actor Colman Domingo (fresh from his Broadway turn in the musical Passing Strange) in his autobiographical solo show A Boy and His Soul. Proposed show run is July. Keep your fingers crossed.

Make `ShowBusiness’ your business

One of the most interesting documentaries of the year had nothing to do with health care or Iraq.

ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway sort of slipped in and out of theaters without a whole lot of fanfare, which is really too bad because director Dori Berinstein has created a fascinating glimpses behind the scenes of four major musicals opening in New York during the 2003-2004 season.

Luckily, the movie came out on DVD this week (Liberation Entertainment, $28.95).

For her movie, Berinstein picked four musicals to follow, and boy did she pick good ones: Wicked, Avenue Q, Caroline, or Change and Taboo.

Bay Area audiences, of course, got the first look at Wicked during its pre-Broadway tryout. We had the great fortune to see Caroline, and Avenue Q made its overdue local debut last August. The only real mystery in this bunch is Taboo, the Rosie O’Donnell-produced ’80s flashback revolving around Boy George: his life, his music and himself (he was in the cast).

Of the four, Wicked and Avenue Q were monster hits and are still running. Caroline is an esteemed flop by Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner and composer Jeanine Tesori. And Taboo is known as one of Broadway’s great disasters.

The movie follows each of the shows from the summer of 2003 up to the Tony Awards in 2004 when Avenue Q upset favorite Wicked for the Best Musical award.

Along the way, we get fascinating glimpses of the creative process, the marketing machine and the economics of Broadway. One of the juiciest threads involves tension between Jeff Marx, the co-composer of Avenue Q and Jeff Whitty, the book writer who was brought on board relatively late in the creative process.

It all ends happily, with Tony Awards for everyone, but the two did not get along, and it’s not pretty. Marx’s parents, by the way, turn out to be a highlight of the movie.

Director Berinstein includes several round-table discussions with New York theater critics, and this, to me, is a horror show. These nattering fools (save Charles Isherwood from the New York Times, who salvages a shred of dignity) make critics look like the lowest possible bottom feeders in the show business pool. Ouch.

Covering such a diverse assortment of shows, Berinstein ended up with more than 250 hours of video that had to be whittled down to 104 minutes.

“The season was a roller coaster with highly anticipated shows closing early and little shows coming out of nowhere to take Broadway by storm,” Berinstein says. “There was no way to predict where the Season was heading. Consequently, it was necessary to capture everything. Editing, as a result, was a massive and extremely difficult process. Narrowing down our primary storytelling to four musicals was excruciating. So many extraordinary moments are on the cutting room so to speak. I can’t wait until we assemble the DVD.”

Visit the movie’s official site at

Here’s the trailer from ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway, followed by a clip featuring Idina Menzel of Wicked.

TheatreWorks’ new season

Jane Austen, Thronton Wilder, Tony Kushner and Golda Meir will all be there…sort of.

Robert Kelley, the founding artistic director of Mountain View’s TheatreWorks has just announced his company’s 38th season.

Unlike many theaters around the Bay Area, TheatreWorks begins its season in the summer, and this year, Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man, the story of deformed circus sideshow attraction John Merrick, kicks things off June 20. TheatreWorks produced the play, which, unlike the movie version, leaves the deformities to the imagination, in 1985.

In July comes the West Coast premiere of Theophilus North, Matthew Burnett’s adaptation of the charming Thornton Wilder novel of the same name.

Next up in August is the world premiere of a new musical based on Jane Austen’s Emma, the tale of a well-meaninng matchmaker who finally stumbles into her own true love. Paul Gordon (Broadway’s Jane Eyre) contributes music, lyrics and book.

In October comes more serious fare: William Gibson’s one-woman show Golda’s Balcony, a peek into the complex mind and heart of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.

For the holidays comes Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and with the new year comes a welcome old friend: the late Wendy Wassterstein (below), whose last play, Third, finally makes it to the West Coast.

In March 2008, Kathleen Clark’s Southern Comforts, a late-in-life love story, takes a bow, followed by the season-ending Caroline, or Change, with book and lyrics by Tony Kushner and music by Jeanine Tesori. If you saw the touring Broadway version in San Francisco, you know this is one of the most powerful and important musicals to come along in the last decade or so. If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s your chance.

Subscriptions for the season range from $100 to $373 and are available now. Single tickets go on sale June 1. Call (888) 273-3752 or visit for information.