Caroline sings a different tune than conventional musicals

Something peculiar happened on Broadway in 2004.

By William Glick

[img id=”80761″ align=”alignleft”] Something peculiar happened on Broadway in 2004. An original musical premiered that wasn’t based on a popular movie and totally lacked a pop-music score. Its writers actually had the gall to pen a musical drama with flawed characters and a willingness to delve into political, economic, and racial conundrums. In other words, they wrote something that wasn’t fun for the whole family. Maybe for that reason, it won few awards and only ran on Broadway for about four months. The show was called Caroline, or Change, with book and lyrics by Tony Kushner and music by Jeanine Tesori. Luckily, it has now come to Court in its Midwest premiere, and we have the great fortune of having it in our backyard.

Caroline, or Change takes place in the winter of 1963 in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination and at the apex of the civil rights movement. While this may seem like the setup for a piece of political theater, the play keeps the “important issues” within the framework of its storyline and character arcs. Caroline Thibodeaux is a black maid living in Lake Charles, LA. She works for the Gellmans, an upper-middle-class Jewish family. Eight-year-old Noah Gellman idolizes Caroline and the two share a connection—but not necessarily a friendship.

However, Caroline’s failed relationships, lack of education, and poverty have turned her into a bitterly angry person. As a result, she attacks even her closest friends and family. Meanwhile, Noah’s stepmother, Rose, self-conscious around Caroline about her wealth, disdains Noah’s habit of leaving loose change in his pants. She believes this habit can be corrected by letting Caroline keep the money she finds in the laundry. A chain of seemingly trivial events ultimately leads to devastating consequences for Noah and Caroline that will transform the Gellman and Thibodaux families.

When looking at the Court’s production of Caroline, one has to consider both the material itself and the style of this production. The show was originally intended to be an opera, so the near-perfect score plays a very different role than traditional musical scores. Kushner’s libretto is rich and poetic without being unstructured or self-indulgent. Tesori’s score draws from a wide variety of sources including Motown, blues, spirituals, and melodies more familiar to musical theater devotees. The strength of the score is reason enough to go see the show, but the performances make it impossible to miss.

E. Faye Butler plays the title role, and the performance is not an easy one to pinpoint. I actually had to see the show twice before I finally formed an opinion. Butler chooses to portray Caroline’s mental and physical deterioration outwardly, making it very accessible to the audience. The performance is full of physical tics as well as a very clear sense that Caroline is losing grip on the world around her. These very obvious and transparent mannerisms can sometimes be off-putting, but they create a kind of Kabuki-style performance that serves the naked emotions of the piece well.

The other two standouts are Kate Fry and Harriet Plumpp. Fry plays Noah’s stepmother, Rose, and has the difficult task of portraying a character who is at heart good and deeply vulnerable, but who is also an antagonist for Caroline and Noah. Fry negotiates this dichotomy without breaking a sweat, her exuberance and vocal prowess greatly enriching the production. In this musical, objects such as a radio, a bus, and a dryer are written as actual roles. Plumpp plays The Washing Machine and The Moon, providing a powerful soprano and interjecting a sense of maternity lacking in the show’s actual mothers. She’s also a fascinating performer to watch on stage even when she is not singing. She always reacts to her fellow actors and never forgets that she is playing three-dimensional characters that just happen to be objects.

The production is not without failings, and there are certainly plenty of moments when it stands only on the strength of the material. Coming into Court, I really wanted to love this production. I have been familiar with the score for years but have never had the privilege of seeing it live. No matter how hard I try, I cannot ignore a few gaping holes. Tesori’s score is incredibly complex and many of the actors just cannot sing it the way it’s meant to be sung. Some resort to a crude form of speak-singing, which diminishes some of the most poignant verses of the show. Also, it is sometimes hard for the actors to keep the high emotional energy of the show going for the two and a half hour running time.

Right now, if you are a U of C student, you have a rare opportunity. You can see a live production of what will probably be regarded as the first great musical of the 21st century. On the whole, it is an extremely well performed, engaging production, despite its flaws. In an age where the line between high theater and banal popular culture is blurring, it might be a good idea to treat yourself to theater that is nuanced, demanding, and emotional. It’s right in your own backyard.