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Aisle Seat: The Times They Are A-Changin’ for Caroline

Updated: Dec 9, 2021

By Naomi Serviss / New York City



The revival of The Public Theater’s 2003


Caroline, or Change


is crushing it at Studio 54.


With Tony Kushner’s


brilliant book and lyrics and


Jeanine Tesori’s deft musical ‘60s reimagining,


Caroline nails the fraught relationship


between Blacks and Jews.


And that just scratches the surface


of this timely revisit.

Caroline Thibodeaux


(the majestic powerhouse Sharon D. Clarke)


is a bone-weary Black woman employed in 1963


by the Gellmans, a wealthy Jewish family


with a basement “16 feet below sea level.”


Set in Lake Charles, La.,


Caroline is tasked with household cleaning


and running endless laundry


in a dank basement, her living hell.


Basements are rare in the floodplains


of the Deep South.


The washing machine


has a mind of its own


and bubbles forth in neon glory.


Caroline’s true self


only emerges, blossoms and soars


when she’s alone with the feisty appliances


and aerial fantasies.


They’re good company with


singular, multi-tasking entertainment.


Adam Makké as Noah and Clarke as Caroline
Adam Makké as Noah and Clarke as Caroline

Caroline is also charged with


precocious eight-year-old Noah


when he returns home from school.


Noah, still reeling


from his mother’s death,


is emotionally invested in Caroline.

She’s not having it,


figuring her emotional investment


is focused on her own progeny.

Not an easy task for $30 a week.


Caroline begrudgingly tolerates


the over-thinking kid.


When he accidentally leaves money


in his pants pockets


before they’re washed,


Caroline plunks it in a plastic bleach cup


and returns it


to its rightful owner.


Until she doesn’t.


Noah and his father’s new wife Rose


implore Caroline


to keep any found pocket change.


Insulted, Caroline at first refuses.


And there’s the rub.


What to do?


Take the pitiful pittance for her kids?


A slight ethical dilemma.


To complicate issues tenfold,


a $20 bill pitches the family


into a frenzied tizzy.


The $20 bill, a Hanukkah gift for Noah,


creates a domino effect


that disrupts the family irrevocably.


It’s the gift that keeps on giving.


The cast of “Caroline, or Change”
The cast of “Caroline, or Change”

Staged by Michael Longhurst


for the Roundabout Theater Company,


the gloomy misery evoked


is deliciously broken up


by singing appliances and a seductive radio.


Spangles, sequins and an unexpected rain shower


heighten the tension


and secure audience attention.


The Gellmans’ Hanukkah fest includes


Rose’s left-ish father from New York City,


as well as other


more middle-of-the road-ish in-laws.


Singing, dancing and merrymaking ensue.


Rose’s father delivers


the aforementioned 20 bucks to Noah.

With a caveat about how money’s true value


Should be carefully measured.


Caroline is a head-spinning musical


teeming with aerial delights,


and a musical smorgasbord


of girl-group pop, Mozart,


Motown, klezmer,


Broadway and blues.


Drum-tight tension


spikes during


the two and a half hour musical,


which at times recalls


Angels in America in media fanfare.


Clarke stars in the Studio 54 production, which was interrupted by the pandemic shutdown
Clarke stars in the Studio 54 production, which was interrupted by the pandemic shutdown

Clarke’s powerhouse,


eleventh-hour song


drew audible audience gasps.

Her majestic register is otherworldly,


angelic and gut-grabbing.


Caroline is a curious lead character.


She never smiles,


and cringes when Noah’s stepmom Rose


mispronounces her name.


A small insult writ large.


Unsympathetically grim,


Caroline tolerates Noah,


letting him light her daily cigarette.


But she disavows his longed-for friendship.


Both literal and metaphorical change


propels Caroline’s world.


She single-handedly toils for her children


in hopes they will escape


her dead-end world.

Clarke won an Olivier Award


for the British production,


and leaves her mark on Broadway’s.


You have until January 9 to catch


this breathtaking,


star-making machinery.


The change will do you good.


 






Naomi Serviss is a New York-based award-winning journalist whose work has been published in The New York Times, Newsday, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Highroads (AAA magazine), in-flight publications, spa and travel magazines and websites, including BroadwayWorld.com

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