By Guy Webster
The first thing you notice when you walk into the Hayes Theatre for a performance of Caroline, Or Change is the towering moon set at the back of the stage. Amid the wooden buttresses sprinkled with Louisiana greenery (expertly designed by Simon Greer), this luminescent moon is the one constant in an ambitious and entrancing piece of theatre interested in how we experience, and react to, change. Although, ironically and importantly, this towering set piece also transforms into the sun of the American South with a quick lighting change.
The plot of Caroline, or Change is relatively simple: amid the political and social tumult of the early 1960s, Caroline Thibodeaux continues her day-to-day duties as a maid for a middle-class Jewish family in Louisiana. As the story continues, we watch as Caroline is forced to contend with these contextual pressures and her place in relation to them. But with book and lyrics by Tony Kushner, this seemingly simple story adopts a distinctly enigmatic and autobiographical air.
Inspired by his experience as a Jewish child living in Louisiana during the early 1960s, the musical – like the changing moon at the back of the stage – is acutely interested in various kinds of pairings. Moon and sun, night and day, washer and drier, clarinet and bassoon, stepmother and mother, poor and rich, Jewish and African American, realism and surrealism - every feature of Caroline, or Change is connected to another. It is the play’s strength – and one of the demands it makes of its audience – that each pairing carries with it questions of relation, meaning that we are forced to consider whether these pairings are connected by their opposition to one another, their complementary relationship or because they simply find themselves in the same space together. We see these questions play out in the text’s relationships and its fragmented structure too; from a stepmother contending with the spectral presence of a deceased mother, a young white child connecting with African-American children of the same age or an older Jewish father considering his experience of prejudice in relation to the maid picking up his food. This is a musical that asks something of you as an audience member: to connect these scenes, to pick up on motifs, to subscribe to its more abstract choices and surreal world-building, all as you consider these pairings. This is a musical where the Moon sings, the Washer and Dryer underscore conflict, and a young boy can sit in his bed and talk to a character who sits miles away on the porch of her home.
Just as the book demands much of its audience, so too does it demand much of its cast. Each of the twelve cast members in this production had to tackle a book bursting with conceptual weight and a score that features a wealth of range-testing notes, Motown stylings and demanding phrasing. Most of the cast, with a few exceptions, tackled this taxing score with skill and nuance. In fact, as any review of Caroline, or Change is destined – even required – to highlight, Elenoa Rokobaro’s performance in the titular role is nothing short of outstanding. With powerful, and importantly consistent, vocal prowess, Rokobaro anchors the story and carries the audience’s attention, even as an opposition to this kind of attention seems written into her character. With endless top notes and an embodied strength, Rokobaro really is a pleasure to behold.
Another stellar performance comes from Amy Hack as Rose Topnick-Gellmann, who delivers an absolute masterclass in physicality and body language. From a singular twirl of a finger around the phone cord to an insecure lift of the foot at the steps of the basement, every one of Hack’s choices are intentional and they imbue her character with a deep internal world. Plus, her breath control amid a never-ending barrage of top notes and quick phrasing left me, ironically, breathless.
Other highlights in the cast include Ruva as the operatic moon, Andrew Cutcliffe as the clarinet-playing distant father figure, Tony Llewellyn-Jones as the progressive grandfather and young Ryan Yeates as the wily Noah Gellman. While the rest of the cast – particularly Emily Havea as Dotty – gave strong acting performances, there was a noticeable vocal strain among some cast members that, while understandable, compromised some of the emotional beats in the story.
Director, Mitchell Butel, knows his actors and he seems acutely aware of the difficulties that the text’s more obtuse leanings (some might say shortcomings) can create. Consequently, when there is an opportunity for comedy, Butel smartly draws it out with purposeful staging and an interest in comedic silences. His use of staging also complements the text’s exploration of various pairings. In particular, a Hanukah celebration offers a stark juxtaposition via its staging: between the prejudicial trappings of a middle-class Jewish family and the social changes that the African American maids serving them are currently grappling with.
This is not a musical for everyone, but it considers the way we navigate – or connect to – social and historical changes in a way that I can’t help but think is incredibly valuable. Caroline’s life, and hence the musical’s storyline, are framed by extraneous changes that are both personal and historical. From JFK’s death, Martin Luther King’s ‘plans’, to the three children Caroline supports, there is a sense that there are important stories external to, perhaps even more significant than, Caroline’s. Caroline’s reserved nature and her opposition to overt activism gives an impression that she doesn’t believe that her personal story is worthy of being told or viewed, and even resents the lead role she plays in a spectacular musical. In this way, I left the theatre conscious of another, equally metafictive pairing: between Caroline and I, or rather, between my role as a viewer and Caroline’s as a subject. Connected as we are in the intimate space of the Hayes Theatre, our pairing is powerful. Just like Caroline’s connection to Noah, or Noah’s connection to his stepmother, or Caroline’s connection to her own story, our pairing is an important precursor to, even an essential part of, change.
Image Credit: Phil Erbacher
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.