Reviewed by Karen Schwartzkopf
The air was frigid when we arrived at Virginia Rep’s Theatre Gym for opening night of Caroline, or Change. But the 82-seat venue, housed in the same Broad Street building as the larger November Theatre, was packed, and the audience warmed up quickly.
There is a lot going on in Caroline, or Change. Single mother Caroline Thibodeaux is a tough-as-nails, uncompromising woman, living in Louisiana and working as a maid for a Jewish family in 1963. Local favorite Desiree Roots is perfect for this role, showing her acting chops along with her soul-stirring Broadway-caliber vocal talents. Though change is all around Caroline, she feels like her time to embrace it has passed.
Directed by Chase Kniffen, this semi-biographical story by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori centers on a young Jewish boy’s inability to take care of his money. Noah Gellman (played Brandon McKinney of Mame) accidentally leaves loose change in his pants pockets, where Caroline finds it while doing the laundry. After Noah’s sympathetic stepmother Rose, played by Bianca Bryan, tells Caroline to keep the money as a lesson for the boy, the proud maid wrestles with the proposition. With four kids of her own (three at home and one serving in Vietnam), the change will come in handy. But should she take the boy’s money?
With no weighty plot to advance during the course of this musical, it’s rewarding to sit back and enjoy the show – examining relationships along the way. Most of the play is sung by a talented cast of all ages. The personified radio (Carolyn Minor-Daughtry, Jessi Johnson, Katrinah Carol Lewis) adds upbeat musical relief between some of the heavier numbers. The house band, integrated seamlessly into a two-story set designed by James Murphy and Terrie Powers, is anchored by the talents of John Winn on clarinet, who walks in and out of character to play Noah’s father, Stuart Gellman.
The females in the play offer a complex web of emotion woven into the storyline. Caroline’s stubbornness is offset by a younger maid friend, Dottie (Carolyn Meade with a gorgeous voice), who attends night school to improve her station. Her daughter Emmie (played by Tyandria Ford Jackson) is fully embracing the Civil Rights era, yearning for the freedoms she sees on the horizon. The young girl wrestles with being the daughter of a maid and wanting more for herself while trying to show respect for her mother’s struggles. I’ve seen Ford Jackson on stage in a number of smaller roles and her efforts at honing her craft are paying off in a big way for theater-goers. White, Jewish, and a northern transplant, stepmother Rose is also working hard to figure out her relationship with her stepson, Noah, her husband, and Caroline, the black maid – a dynamic that Bryan pulls off in awkward but authentic fashion.
The relationship between Caroline and Noah, however, is even more complex. The two are kindred souls with little joy in their lives who can’t decide if their unique bond is a source for happiness or angst. Among my favorites were the split-stage scenes with Noah tucked in bed at his house and Caroline on her front porch while the pair tried to hash things out. A show-stealing scene was the one in which Caroline’s three children (shout-out to Donathan Arnold as Joe and Sam Merkle as Jackie as Caroline’s sons) celebrated the coins their mother had given them while Noah looked on, contemplating how dinner conversation at the Thibodeaux house might focus on him now.
Caroline, or Change runs nearly two-and-a-half hours including a 15-minute intermission. Most of the music is lively and upbeat, but the historic and social themes are complicated. While the kids in the cast are fantastic, this isn’t a show children will understand, although most would be entertained. I would recommend it for about ten and up. A Cadence Theatre production, you can see Caroline, or Change at Virginia Rep’s Theatre Gym on Broad Street through March 14. Go here for showtimes and tickets.