Outsiders Bond in a South
of Roiling Change
By BEN BRANTLEY
The plot hinges on the division of small amounts
of pocket money — nickles, dimes, even pennies.
But there is nothing cheap or loose about "Caroline,
or Change," the carefully wrought chamber opera
by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori.
this impeccably performed show, which opened
last night at the Public Theater under the direction
of George C. Wolfe, is much like its title character,
a black maid for a Jewish family in Louisiana
in 1963. Played with commanding self-containment
by Tonya Pinkins, Caroline Thibodeaux is a stoical,
As a worker and mother, she conscientiously
does her duty. But she is equally conscientious
in refusing to unbend, to truckle or paste on
an insincere smile. That she has the courage
of her convictions is what keeps her from falling
apart. It is also what keeps her from finding
emotional freedom. She is, as the show's lyrics
have it, "the queen of keep-at-bay."
A similar strain of self-denial runs through
this latest offering from Mr. Kushner, the prodigiously
talented dramatist whose award-wreathed "Angels
in America" has been adapted as a movie
for HBO, with a premiere on Sunday. As directed
by Mr. Wolfe, who staged "Angels"
on Broadway, "Caroline" steadfastly
resists easy opportunities to work its audience
into a lather.
The show deals with, among other things, the relationship
between a weary black housekeeper and a motherless
white boy; the growing civil rights movement; and
the assassination of President John F. Kennedy —
subjects traditionally guaranteed to push New York
theatergoers' mist-up buttons.
Yet Ms. Tesori's deliberately fragmented sung-through
score avoids the usual anthems of uplift and self-empowerment,
while Mr. Kushner's libretto refuses to sentimentalize
or exalt its heroine. The tone throughout is of even-handed,
slightly distanced compassion, as people of different
classes are revealed as pawns of a corrupting economic
Though "Caroline" has a first-rate cast,
including Veanne Cox and a refreshingly direct child
actor named Harrison Chad, you may find you appreciate
the show more in retrospect than while you're watching
it. In ambition and achievement, "Caroline"
handily tops any new musical this fall. (I am not
including "Avenue Q," which opened in the
summer.) But in truth, it is almost too good to be
"Caroline" might be regarded as the brooding
person's "Hairspray," the Broadway hit that
also considers integration in the early 1960's. In
"Hairspray," no social ill is so vicious
that it can't be worked out in an "American Bandstand"-style
dance-a-thon. It is a point of honor that the change
suggested in the title of Mr. Kushner's musical is
incremental and incomplete. Song in "Caroline"
reflects troubling thoughts; it does not purge them.
Tellingly, both productions feature Supremes-like
trios who pop up as figures of fantasy. In "Hairspray,"
these sleek singers advise that a girl just needs
a new dress to outfox the blues. In "Caroline,"
the vocalists (played by Tracy Nicole Chapman, Marva
Hicks and Ramona Keller) look just as glamorous and
sing as seductively, but in — shall we say?
— a more minor key. "Melt the hairspray
in your hair," they croon in the radio of Caroline's
mind as she does laundry. "Turn it on, turn on
In structure, "Caroline" evokes American
short stories of four and five decades ago, written
by masters like William Maxwell and Peter Taylor —
tales hazy with retrospective guilt, in which a white
child of privilege unwittingly betrays someone he
loves from another class.
In "Caroline," this relationship is reincarnated
by 9-year-old Noah Gellman (Mr. Chad) — whose
mother recently died of cancer and whose clarinet-playing
father (David Costabile) is unreachably remote —
and Caroline, the family maid. Mr. Kushner widens
the story's social focus to create a Marxist economics
The root of the plot is money, part of the punning
"change" of the title. Noah's habit of leaving
coins in his pants pockets annoys Rose (Ms. Cox),
his new stepmother, who declares that Caroline can
keep whatever money she finds in the laundry.
The ensuing domestic crisis, built to by painstaking
degrees, becomes a whispered echo of larger currents
of social change roiling the South. And the production
makes it clear that everyone in Caroline's world is
warped by an awareness of money, from her three luxury-hungry
children (Anika Noni Rose, Kevin Ricardo Tate and
Marcus Carl Franklin) to Rose's old-style socialist
father (Larry Keith).
Not that "Caroline" is all textbook realism.
The show also features a whimsical assortment of anthropomorphic
creatures, reminders that Mr. Kushner recently collaborated
on a book with that immortal of children's literature,
Maurice Sendak. These include a singing washing machine
(Capathia Jenkins), dryer (Chuck Cooper) and radio
(those Supremes-like gals) to articulate Caroline's
unspoken desires and resentments.
A mournful bus (Mr. Cooper) shows up to announce
the death of President Kennedy. And most spectacularly
— and intrusively — there's the Moon (Adriane
Lenox), who looks like Josephine Baker via Maxfield
Parrish and floats onstage to comment on the changeable
nature of change.
This blend of reality and annotative fantasy is rigorously,
sometimes cumbersomely carried through in the set
(Riccardo Hernández), lighting (Jules Fisher
and Peggy Eisenhauer) and costumes (Paul Tazewell).
The set, which often places images of domestic affluence
and poverty in counterpoint, also underscores the
show's sense of distance, as Mr. Wolfe struggles to
balance the panoramic with the personal.
Ms. Tesori's postmodern collage of a score, which
quotes everything from Motown to Mozart, is excellent
in capturing the swirl and disjunction of patterns
of thought. (She makes especially witty use of Christmas
and Hannukah music.) But there's an outsider's perspective
to much of "Caroline," as if its characters
were, above all, pieces of historical evidence to
As the author of "Angels" and "Homebody/Kabul,"
Mr. Kushner is an opulent writer whose prose ravishes
and dizzies. As a lyricist, he is more efficient and
calculated. Slyly eliciting different meanings from
words like underground, flat and, yes, change, he
proves that you don't need a fancy vocabulary to create
intellectually complex effects.
But he spends too much time explaining his characters,
via story-of-my-life arias and bald declarations,
when it would be preferable to let us discover them
on our own. The cast — which also includes Alice
Playten and Reathel Bean as Noah's grandparents and
Chandra Wilson as Caroline's skeptical friend —
is not to be faulted.
They all, including the usually flamboyant Ms. Cox,
turn in intelligently measured performances that never
beg for affection or attention. And as Caroline's
teenage daughter, a harbinger of a new era in politics,
Ms. Rose is lovely, providing an appropriate and welcome
suggestion of a more fully lived life.
A Tony Award winner for "Jelly's Last Jam,"
Ms. Pinkins has never been better than she is here,
in an intense, controlled performance that somehow
always hints at the currents of rage and helplessness
beneath Caroline's rigid dignity. Even when confessing
her weaknesses to God, she remains formidable. You
can see why Noah would idolize her. And Ms. Pinkins
and Mr. Chad expertly convey their characters' bond
as outsiders without even skirting mawkishness.
Their scenes together would benefit from being expanded,
though, with more than the synoptic detail that exists
now. (She lets him light her daily cigarette.) As
it is, you clearly and soberly see their places in
the judiciously arranged social canvas of "Caroline."
But the show would have so much more power and pain
if these ambivalent friends claimed the foreground
CAROLINE, OR CHANGE
Book and lyrics by Tony Kushner; music
by Jeanine Tesori; directed by George C. Wolfe; sets
by Riccardo Hernández; costumes by Paul Tazewell;
lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer; sound
by Jon Weston; hair design by Jeffrey Frank; orchestrations,
Rick Bassett, Joseph Joubert and Buryl Red; music
supervisor, Kimberly Grigsby; music director and conductor,
Linda Twine; choreography by Hope Clarke; production
stage manager, Rick Steiger; managing director, Michael
Hurst. Presented by the Public Theater, Mr. Wolfe,
producer; Mara Manus, executive director. At the Newman
Theater in the Joseph Papp Public Theater, 425 Lafayette
Street, East Village.
WITH: Tonya Pinkins (Caroline Thibodeaux);
Capathia Jenkins (the Washing Machine); Harrison Chad
(Noah Gellman); Chuck Cooper (the Dryer, the Bus);
Tracy Nicole Chapman, Marva Hicks and Ramona Keller
(the Radio); Alice Playten (Grandma Gellman); Reathel
Bean (Grandpa Gellman); Veanne Cox (Rose Stopnick
Gellman); David Costabile (Stuart Gellman); Anika
Noni Rose (Emmie); Kevin Ricardo Tate (Jackie); Marcus
Carl Franklin (Joe); Larry Keith (Mr. Stopnick); Adriane
Lenox (the Moon); Chandra Wilson (Dotty Moffett).
New York Times
Diciembre - 2003