Heartbreaking Magic and Mystery in Tantrum Theater’s Caroline, Or Change
Fabulism brings a new perspective on our mutual pain, desire, and joy by disrupting what we think we know. Breaking the rules of the world lets us experience it through new eyes. Caroline, Or Change, the 2003 Broadway musical by Tony Kushner (book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (music) uses anthropomorphism to extend the musical’s natural tendency to turn metaphor into flesh. We can see the dark middle period of the civil rights movement (1963-64) and the intersection of the black and Jewish communities in this time of crisis. Tantrum Theater’s gripping production opened last week, directed by Robert Barry Fleming.
Set in Louisiana, we see through the eyes of the title character, Caroline Thibodeaux (Christina Acosta Robinson), a maid to a well-off family. The perspective shifts slightly with interjections from the family’s son, Noah Gellman (Joshua Turchin). Noah’s fractured family has been put back together in an almost parody of what had been. Nicole Sumlin is the washing machine, singing harmonies and a steady, sultry base melody line to score the daily drudgery. Caroline’s other constant companion is the laundry room’s radio, represented by Mariah Burks (who also voices the moon), Alaina Kai, and Colleen Longshaw (who also plays Caroline’s friend Dotty) in a pitch-perfect nod to The Crystals and the Marvelettes. Ken Robinson provides a burst of heat as the dryer and also the always-delayed bus.
We meet his father, Stuart (Stanley Bahorek), in a state of numb stasis. Stuart deals with the death of Noah’s mother by marrying her best friend and singing about a “new start” making no discernable effort to embrace what’s new or different about Rose (Amy P). Blackman clearly has a grand time leaning into the closest thing the show has to a villain. Noah’s grandparents, played by Loni Ackerman and Howard Elson, offer commentary on the outside world as a generation terrified of any change. Caroline’s children, Emmie (Arianna Hanson), Jackie (Easton Sumlin), and Joe (Antonio Watson), present a hard-won hope for the future.
Thibodeaux is one of the great theatrical characters of my generation. It’s hard to picture a better take on her than we get from Christina Acosta Robinson. Her volcanic performance captures the full range of human feeling and underlines how hard history can come down on. She gives us a subtle, deeply physical performance underlining the damage that narrowing of choices does to a person. Her moments of catharsis are thrilling. Those bursts of memory when Caroline allows herself to explode with a smile that could power cities are so dazzling the audience forgets the heartbreak that’s coming for even a moment. Robinson makes all of us forget plot points we already know. Her interplay with Sumlin’s washing machine and the radio girl group is a cascade of harmonies that remind us all that the world is always connected whether we want it to be or not. Tesori’s understanding of the history of popular music extends into a reminder that the sweetness of that era’s music was underpinned by an ache and her use of Caroline’s voice rising above, slipping through, and slipping behind the radio, washing machine, and dryer made my spine a little straighter.
Caroline’s relationship with Noah doesn’t get fleshed out as much but their time on stage together does drive home the gap of class is truly unbridgeable and the boy has a widening vista in front of him Caroline’s children will never have half of. The moment when Noah says, “Can we be friends again” and Caroline, with no malice but an unimpeachable sense of what is says “Weren’t ever friends.” Turchin does a fine job with a character who’s realistically grating but I’m not sure anyone could overcome how thin and repetitive his scenes seem. Even if the 10-year-old doesn’t know it now, he’s another boss. Her complicated relationship with Emmie is one of the highlights of the show and Arianna Hanson is a star. Hanson implies everything she’s inherited from Caroline, including a spine of steel that she hopes will let her claim more of the world. Hanson’s scenes with Gordon Stanley’s Mr. Stopnick are charming and in one infectious, swinging song with Sumlin and Watson (also very good throughout), she implies how much has been asked of her as the oldest child in the house and the grace with which she’s dealt with that pressure.
Tesori’s understanding of the history of popular music extends into a reminder that the sweetness of that era’s music was underpinned by an ache and her use of Caroline’s voice rising above, slipping through, and slipping behind the radio, washing machine, and dryer made my spine a little straighter. Kushner’s attempts to merge plainspoken, almost banal lyrics, with heightened language a la Brecht, are a mixed bag with groaners like “we’re as remote as Tibet” but when it comes together with Tesori’s more artful patchwork Americana, as on Emmie’s two songs or Caroline’s ferocious second act opener, it feels like the next step in a fully American theatre language.
The storytelling in the source material is lumpy and Fleming can’t always overcome that. However, it’s a testament to Fleming that this production moves as fluidly and naturally as it does, his liquid choreography understands how people move. It slips into dance without ever stooping to a moment of transition, there’s no “We’re dancing now,” suddenly the movements just catch fire. He understands the delicate balance between fantasy and reality this play needs and the micro- and macro-rhythms. The five piece band, conducted by Brandon Adams from the piano, have a similar bone-deep understanding of Tesori’s magical score with particularly striking moments from Dean Marcellana’s keyboard bass and Nancy Gamso’s blood-dark clarinet.
While not a perfect show, there are songs here that will seep right into your spine. And you’re unlikely to see a better performance anywhere than Christina Acosta Robinson.
Caroline, Or Change runs through July 22 with performances at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8:00 p.m. Friday, 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Saturday, and 2:00 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit tantrumtheater.org/play/caroline-or-change.